Why Atheists Should Be Feminists

I've been writing since the beginning of Daylight Atheism about the unique ways that religion harms women. Although men have also suffered innumerable harms from religious beliefs, they're not singled out, treated as an underclass uniquely deserving of condemnation, the way that women are in almost every major religion's sacred texts. That's why I wrote in posts like 2006's "Religion's Harm to Women":

There is only one realistic way to end religion's harm to women, and that is to cut it off at the source: every feminist should be an atheist.

I still stand by this. But over the past year, I've come to the realization that, if we're ever going to make progress rolling back the advance of fundamentalism, this equation also has to flow in the opposite direction.

The feminist cause has made enormous strides over the past century, both in law and in fact, but we have to face up to the fact that our society is still far from true equality for men and women. There's still a persistent pay gap between men and women, and CEOs and other captains of industry are overwhelmingly male. Women are still judged on their appearance to an enormously greater extent than is true for men, and rewarded to the extent for which they're willing to conform and act accordingly. And then there are the direct threats to women's health and lives, including forced prostitution, domestic violence, honor killings, genital mutilation and rape, which are persistent in the West and endemic in the developing world.

And as atheists, we ought to have a particularly easy time recognizing the harm done to women in the name of God. Since our vision isn't clouded by theological biases that excuse sexist treatment as God's ineffable will, we can see the systematic degradation of women in the world's religions: barring women from positions of authority, forcing them to wear dehumanizing clothing, teaching that their proper role is to obey men, and more.

But for all that, the atheist community isn't completely free of sexism either. There's still too much tolerance of sexist insults, in a way that would never be countenanced for racist or homophobic language. There are still too many notable instances of women being demeaned as less intelligent or less capable of skepticism than men, or in some other way inferior. And then, of course, there are the atheists who are just flat-out stupid bigots, like this one who thinks that the only reason women wanted the right to vote was so they could take away men's right to drink:

Feminism has its roots in the Suffrage movement, which was a movement of radical Christian women who thought that giving women the right to vote was a necessary step in removing men's ability to buy alcohol.

All these things individually may seem subtle or trivial, not worth our time to address. But the overall consequences are obvious and readily visible: the atheist movement has a significant imbalance of men, and the most prominent and visible atheists - the ones who get the lion's share of media attention, the ones who are most often assumed to represent atheism as a whole - are all men. As Greta Christina says, when a situation like this arises, it's almost never an accident.

And there are plenty of people who've noticed this, even if they're not completely clear on the causes. Consider columns like this one, from Sarah McKenzie, calling for greater female participation in the atheist movement (HT: the always-incisive Ophelia Benson). Most of the column is excellent, but where I think she goes astray is this:

After all, girls are taught to be sensitive and emotional, to not cause trouble or be particularly forthright with their opinions. Women who dare to be aggressive or outspoken are often labelled as hysterical harpies, not worthy of being listened to and impossible to take seriously. We should hardly be surprised that some women might be reluctant to come out as atheists.

While I agree that women are underrepresented among prominent atheists, I don't think it's the case that it's because women are put off by confrontational skepticism (though her point about women being attacked for being outspoken is well-taken). Rather, I think it's because there is sexism, and tolerance of sexism, in the atheist community, to a greater degree than I'd like to admit - and women are quite capable of sensing that. It's small wonder that they don't always feel welcome. And what makes it worse is that this problem is self-perpetuating: often, men who notice this gender gap assume it to have some biological basis, as if women were "naturally" more prone to be religious than men - and this kind of baseless, unfounded just-so story exacerbates the problem still further.

This, of course, isn't to say that there are no female atheists. There are many - I've linked to some of them in just this post - and they span the spectrum from peaceful and nurturing to assertive and ass-kicking. It's not as if would-be female atheists are lacking for worthy role models. But more needs to be done, which is why I believe that atheists need to be feminists, both within our own community and in the wider world. We need to learn to recognize sexism, both overt and subtle, and to call it out wherever it appears. We have to be more diligent in recognizing and promoting the contributions of female freethinkers. And most importantly, we need to stop tolerating those among us who make ignorant remarks that stigmatize women and discourage them from participating.

The diversity of the atheist movement is its greatest strength. There will never be a council of elders or an infallible text dictating what atheists must believe, nor would I want there to be. But I think the atheist community can and should act collectively, by unanimous consent, to make it clear to sexists and other bigots that they are not welcome and that we don't want them associated with us - similar to the way Larry Darby was collectively cast out after he revealed his racist, Holocaust-denying beliefs. We should do this not because it's a decree imposed on us from above, but because we all recognize, using our own reason and best sense, that it's the right thing to do, and that we stand to gain many more friends and allies than we stand to lose.

August 20, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink135 comments

Book Review: The Atheist's Creed

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: A scholarly survey of the atheism of dead white guys.

Much like Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, Dr. Michael Palmer's The Atheist's Creed is intended as an anthology of atheist thought from historical to modern times. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Palmer traces the development of atheist thought to the European Enlightenment, then branches out into selections by historical and modern writers that explore atheist views on morality, theodicy, miracle claims, and assorted theological arguments for the existence of God. In each chapter, he provides a brief overview of the subject matter, then goes on to quote extended excerpts from the writing of various historical personages on that topic. Not all of the authors showcased here claimed to be atheists themselves; but the ones who didn't, like Thomas Paine and David Hume, made important arguments that laid the path for later freethinkers to follow.

I'll start with what I liked about the book, which is that Palmer is clearly in full command of his subject material. The earlier chapters, in my opinion, were the strongest. His chapter on the Greek philosophers, like Epicurus, Lucretius and Sextus Empiricus, was excellent: he shows where their views sprang from, how they defended them to contemporaries, and recounts some interesting historical facts I hadn't known. I can offer similar praise for his chapter on the Enlightenment philosophers, which shows how these freethinkers were surprisingly bold and daring in an era still dominated by medieval church hierarchies. (This book gave me a desire to read more about the Baron d'Holbach, who fearlessly claimed the title of "atheist" for himself and who nurtured many other renowned freethinkers at his famous salons. It may have been the only time in history that so many remarkable minds were under one roof!)

With all that said, I have two major criticisms to lodge against this book: one that's about what's not there, and one that's about what is. I'll start with the latter.

First: The later chapters of the book, which concern atheism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, give pride of place to the writings of Freud, Marx, and especially Nietzsche. While Palmer praises all three of them effusively, he fails to note clearly that subsequent science has thrown all their signature ideas into grave doubt: Freud's belief in suppressed sex drives as the cause of all psychological illness, Marx's belief in the inevitability and the desirability of communist triumph, and Nietzsche's ideas of eternal recurrence and opposition to evolution. None of these people command much respect among the modern atheist movement for that very reason - not to mention the near-universal modern rejection of Nietzsche's bizarre and disturbing nihilism. It's here that the book's uncertainty of purpose is most apparent: is it intended as an anthology of historical atheism or a compendium of things that modern atheists do believe or should believe? Its overall organization suggests the latter, not the former, which is why I think all three of these were poor choices.

Second: I really have to point out that, of the twenty-seven anthologized essays that fill out this book, every single one of them was written by a white male of European descent. I criticized The Portable Atheist for not including nearly enough women, but it's a parade of diversity compared to the selections here.

Now, I don't have a bright-line rule for this kind of thing. I don't insist that every anthology contain set percentages of women and minorities. But in a book like this one, one that's intended to contain a representative selection of atheist thought through the ages, how is it possible that not a single woman was included? Not a single person from outside Europe and the United States?

I don't think anyone would argue that there are no prominent atheists who fit that description. There are plenty of smart, eloquent female freethinkers, both then and now; there are nonbelievers from all cultures and continents. The only way to account for their otherwise inexplicable exclusion from this book is the sort of unconscious bias that the atheist movement still has to do a lot of work to overcome. Female freethinkers and atheists of color exist; their contributions are real and should be acknowledged, and their history deserves to be better known. Regrettably, this book doesn't advance either of those aims.

June 14, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

Magister Ludi Magisteria

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (1/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Masters of the shell game have been swindling and duping the overconfident and the ignorant for millennia. The game operator places a "pea" beneath one of three "shells". The operator then shuffles the shells in front of the player before asking the player to guess at the pea's location. Unbeknownst to the player, the operator has removed the pea via a sleight-of-hand technique. It is impossible for the player to best the operator. The operator is in complete control of the outcome.

Cultural relativists and obscurantists employ a similar sleight-of-mind technique to maintain control over human rights discourse and to deflect attacks from activists and the international community. They like to play a rousing game, which I like to call the Religio-Cultural-Racial Shell Game. The goal of the game is to hide the human rights violation by removing the violation from the discourse and entrancing any malcontents with the hypnotic effect of shell shuffling. The three "shells" in this game are comprised of the unholy trinity of Religion, Culture and Race.

If someone wishes to defend a practice, it is best to describe such a practice as a religious tenet, thereby bestowing upon it the greatest degree of protection from condemnation. It is almost enough to boggle the mind – the resulting effluvia of apologetics, if one only claims religion's bigotries as religious liberties.

However, some practices are beyond the pale, even by gods' standards, which are exceedingly capacious. The most horrific practices are becoming intolerable and unjustifiable, even in a world that pays the utmost obeisance to religious idiocy. This is the case with respect to such misogynistic practices as honor killings and female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced girl child marriages.

In such cases, it behooves the religious to disown their former bread and butter. They admit the existence of the practices in their societies, but impute it to the unorthodox work of culture's unwieldy and nefarious ways. They thereby immunize themselves against attack. This is the now all-too-familiar "it's not religion; it's culture" switcheroo. Of course, some religious diehards will remain unswayed by reformation, no matter how politic. And, unflappable cultural relativist purists will be undeterred by the pejorative connotation of the attribution.

But, the cultural relativists have an ace up their sleeve, a magic trick long employed by the obscurantists. And, even the religious are beginning to take note. Besides the potent defense mechanism of screaming cultural imperialism, one may artfully dodge any accusations of having perpetrated human rights violations by obscuring the issue with indictments of racist intent. The stultifying effect of such a charge has been duly noted by the religious. They have wasted no time in doing their utmost to attempt to equate religion with race.

The greatest operators of the Religio-Cultural-Racial Shell Game move the pea as it suits them, beneath whichever shell of obfuscation that happens to serve best in the moment. Thus, they leave the human rights activist bereft of options. It's not religion; it's culture, unless we wish to claim it as religion, but, regardless, if you attack it, you will be accused of racism.

Case in point: the burqa. It's not a religious tradition. It's a cultural tradition. How dare you impugn Islam or Allah as commanding such an odious practice? Except when it is claimed as a religious tradition under cover of religious liberty. How dare you deny a woman's free choice to express her religious faith? And, if you attack the practice, you will be charged with racism against Arabs, and, surprisingly, or not, Muslims, as if Islam were a race and not a religion.

Of course, all of these shenanigans are nothing but a ruse comprised of fetid, putrid smoke and shards of broken mirrors. Religion and culture are NOT non-overlapping magisteria. Religion is culture. To say that religion has some objective or absolute meaning or objective or absolute doctrine when wholly removed from its cultural context is asinine. This is simply an attempt to bolster the idea that religion bears some objective or absolute truth. This is false.

Religion has no meaning when removed from its cultural context. Religion was born from culture. Culture exists without religion, because humanity exists. But, without culture, religion ceases to exist. To pretend otherwise is to buy into the delusion of the objective or absolute truth of religious doctrine.

Religion is not the realm of divine values while culture may lay claim to the realm of human values. And, even if such were the case, no mere human is able to divine the distinction between the divine and the worldly. This fact has been borne out by the ages of human history, so I would be quite wary of the charlatan operators claiming to be able to do so now. Our understanding of what lies inside the realm of the divine evolves and fluctuates according to the whims of human culture. Strange that.

As we evolve away from religious idiocy, more and more barbaric religious customs and traditions will be relegated to the cultural realm and disowned by their respective religious forebears. Like a child who refuses to relinquish its disintegrating security blanket, the faithful are loathe to give up their cults. Instead, they are shedding tenets and customs and traditions and doctrinal commandments like a molting diseased emu, most of whose brethren are long extinct. The religious hang onto an illusory distinction between religion and culture as if their beliefs depend upon it. And, they do.

In the game of Hide-the-Human-Rights-Violation, cultural relativism is religion's bitch. The religious are not cultural relativists. They are not moral relativists. They believe that they possess an objective and absolute moral truth. Their gods are supposedly infallible. So, when their religious traditions and tenets and doctrines and beliefs fail to live up to the most rudimentary human formulations of moral behavior, how to respond?

Well, those faults must be the result of imperfect human culture intruding upon the sacred and divine and pure religious space. So, of course, if one discovers that culture, including human, all-too-human frailty and cruelty, has set up camp in the campground of divinity, it has to be expunged.

But, this is all just lip service. All of those so-called cultural practices are staples of the diet upon which the world's major religions feed. Misogyny, bigotry, slavery, genocide, rape, torture, racism and the list goes on and on. If those "cultural" practices go away, the world's major religions will shrivel up and die, turning into emaciated carcasses to rot upon the garbage heap of dead religions.

This is cultural relativism's raison-d'être: to do religion's dirty work. And, isn't that always how religion operates? Privately dependent upon that which is publicly disowned. Isn't it ironic that those who proclaim moral absolutism rely upon those who aver moral relativism to protect those practices without which religion has no purpose and cannot survive?

And, religion protects culture, as the ostensible linchpin of any given culture, by bestowing an aura of respectability and sanctity. It's part of their culture, but, at the same time, it's their religion, so show some respect.

The same may be said for the race shell. Religion breeds racism, as does cultural relativism, yet both rely upon most persons' abhorrence for racism as protection.

So, if you buy into the game, if you agree to play, as so many human rights activists do, out of western imperialist and colonialist guilt, what result?

If you refuse to acknowledge, for example, the role that religion plays in the subjugation of women, what are you saying as a human rights activist? You are saying that those societies that perpetrate the most egregious atrocities upon their female populations are sadists or idiots or both. You are saying that they are incapable of grasping the concept of human dignity or don't care. And, you are perpetuating the religious patriarchy that created the problem in the first place. In other words – you have been duped. Thanks for playing.

Can we call a farce a farce already? Can we expose the little wizened man pulling the levers behind the green curtain? Or, must we continue, blind, deaf and dumb, politely and purposely oblivious to the sufferings of our fellow travelers?

I, for one, am no one's mark, and I'm not religion's bitch anymore.

May 5, 2010, 5:44 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Richard Leakey

Atheists have a great number of famous names to our credit. We can justly claim renowned composers, scientists, musicians, civil rights leaders - and conservationists, as we'll see in today's post on the contributions of freethinkers.

Richard Leakey was born in Nairobi in 1944, son of the famous archaeologist Louis Leakey. The elder Leakey was a strong supporter of racial equality, and Richard's upbringing reflected that belief. He started school soon after the Mau Mau rebellion had been defeated, and when he spoke up in favor of the native Kenyans, his classmates taunted him as a "nigger lover", beat him, spat on him and forced him into a wire cage. Several online sources say that he also resolved never to be a Christian after he was caned for missing chapel services.

Partly due to incidents like this, Richard never finished high school. But despite this, he showed an impressive aptitude of his own for finding fossils of human ancestors - including Turkana Boy, one of the most complete hominid skeletons ever unearthed, which was discovered by a paleontological team under his direction. He also showed impressive skill at administration, becoming director of the National Museums of Kenya at just 25.

In 1989, in response to an international outcry over the slaughter of elephants and rhinos by poachers, President Daniel Arap Moi appointed Leakey head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and tasked him with protecting Kenya's endangered wildlife. Leakey accomplished this in characteristically bold fashion - by creating well-armed, specially-trained park ranger units that were authorized to shoot poachers on sight. Draconian though this seems, it was effective: almost a hundred poachers were killed during his first year at KWS, and poaching rates declined thereafter. Leakey also made international headlines when he burned 12 tons of confiscated illegal ivory, worth more than $3 million, in a massive bonfire.

In 1993, Leakey was flying a small private plane that crashed near the Great Rift Valley. This is widely believed, though never proved, to have been sabotage by someone seeking to assassinate him, probably in revenge for the anti-poaching campaign. He survived the crash, though he was badly injured and both his legs had to be amputated. Within a few months, however, he was up and walking again on prosthetics and back on the job.

Unfortunately, as a crusading reformist, Leakey may have been too zealous even for his own government. President Moi demanded that he reinstate 1,600 KWS employees who had been fired for corruption or inefficiency, and when Leakey refused, Moi gutted the agency, taking away most of its budget and power. Leakey resigned in protest, and in 1995, founded a new political party, Safina, devoted to the cause of reform. His campaign drew angry threats from British settlers who felt his zeal was putting them in jeopardy, and on one occasion, he was attacked by a mob loyal to Moi's party. As always, however, he refused to quit, and two years later, he won a seat in Kenya's Parliament. A year after that, with international lenders withholding funds because of pervasive corruption, Moi asked Leakey to rejoin his administration. As a January 2010 article in Sierra puts it:

So Richard Leakey, five times accused of treason — and of being a racist, colonialist, and atheist (the only accusation to which he pleads guilty) — was named head of Kenya's Public Service.

This time, Leakey had even more power than before: in his new job, he had authority second only to the president. But even this wasn't enough, and when his anti-corruption efforts ran into repeated political roadblocks, he quit for the second time. This time, he swore off politics for good.

At 65, Leakey still lives in Kenya, hale and hearty after two kidney transplants and still working to advance the cause of conservation in the country where he's spent nearly all his life. His most recent achievement is the launch of WildlifeDirect, a website that directly connects Western donors with conservationists and field biologists working with threatened and endangered species throughout the world. In 2008, WildlifeDirect helped to fund and train 700 park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Throughout his life, Leakey's zeal for combatting corruption has been exceeded only by his passion for bridging the gap between humans and nature, whether through unearthing our fossil past or preserving our threatened present for posterity. It's plain that his being an atheist didn't deprive him of an ethical compass. If anything, it contributed to the sense of profound interconnection with the natural world that's driven all the greatest advocates of conservation, past and present. Richard Leakey is one freethinker that atheists can be proud to have on our side.

Other posts in this series:

April 21, 2010, 8:06 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink10 comments

On Sexism and Consciousness-Raising

I've written in the past about religion's harm to women, and the way modern sexism is aided and abetted by ancient religious prejudices that still survive today. Every major holy book has sexist verses, but some of the most misogynistic and the most virulent can be found in the books referred to by Christians as the Old Testament. Since this text is the foundation for religions that comprise over half the population of the world, it's small wonder that oppressive, sexist ideas still have so much power.

This ancient misogyny is on full display in this article about a group of pious Jewish women who want to pray at the Wailing Wall, the holiest site of Judaism. They're obviously seeking to perpetuate the faith, not rebel against it, and you might think that would earn them respect from their peers. But instead, they've faced insults, taunting, and even arrest, all from ultra-Orthodox men who demand that women be kept separate, silenced, and subordinate:

Men sporting the black coats and wheel-shaped fur hats that identify ultra-Orthodox Jews shouted at the women, calling them "Nazis," and telling them to "go to church".

...Their adversaries, including the rabbi of the wall, say that the women have no business wearing such religious garments as yarmulkes and prayer shawls, or carrying the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

Such things, the ultra-Orthodox Jews say, are reserved for men.

Whatever religious blindness has afflicted these men, I trust that we as atheists can agree that this kind of sexism is unacceptable. This kind of disgusting bigotry should be intolerable in an enlightened world. We, both men and women, have every reason to cooperate in stamping it out wherever it rears its head, and to work for its total eradication.

But one of the biggest mistakes we could make would be to assume that misogyny only manifests itself in obvious ways: as ultra-Orthodox men cursing and spitting at women on the streets, or Muslims committing honor killings against female relatives, or Roman Catholics arguing that abortion should be forbidden even to women with life-threatening ectopic pregnancies. Those are the most visible manifestations, but sexism can take on more subtle forms as well, more difficult to notice and therefore to oppose.

I bring this up because of an appalling editorial published on Comment is Free by Nancy Graham Holm, writing about the ax attack on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard by a Muslim fanatic. The title of her article was - no joke - "Prejudiced Danes provoke fanaticism", and its argument was that Danish writers and artists are to blame for any violence they suffer as a result of offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims, who demand the right to be exempt from criticism or satire.

This cowardly nonsense was capably dissected by Ophelia Benson, the author of Butterflies and Wheels (and also a columnist for Comment is Free). Holm's article also caught the attention of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and there, too, most of the commenters on the site's forum responded with appropriate criticism. But there were a few who couldn't stop there - including one whose reaction was to attack Holm as a "stupid bitch".

Ophelia stopped by to point out the inappropriateness of this, and she was met by several commenters who insisted that this was a perfectly acceptable way to criticize a woman, that it wasn't at all sexist, and even if it was, women are just as sexist as men so it's hypocritical to complain about it. Here are a few shining examples:

If you really want to cast a gender in the role of servants or slaves, then a case could be made that MEN have been the servants...

One half of humanity [that would be the male half —Ebonmuse] does not get a say in whether language is sexist?

Ophelia needs to recognize not only that "words change" in general, but that these particular words -- slang terms like bitch -- have changed and acquired a non-sexist sense.

These commenters argued that the word "bitch" is defensible as long as it's being used only against one specific person and not a slur against all women, and if it wasn't meant as sexist by the person who said it, then it wasn't sexist.

While I don't think this kind of attitude poses a threat to the atheist movement as a whole, I do think it's extremely important to ensure that everyone feels welcome among us, regardless of race or gender. That's a goal that the atheist movement still needs to devote more effort to accomplishing, and comments like these don't help. (Several commenters referred to the "locker-room atmosphere" of the comments at the largely unmoderated RD.net forums - although to his credit, Richard Dawkins himself did step in to put a stop to the flame war.)

To begin, let me pose a question to anyone who thinks that "bitch" is an appropriate term to use in reference to any woman. If you strongly disagreed with an essay written by a gay person, would you write a critique calling them a faggot? If it was a black person, would you express your disapproval by calling them a nigger? If these slurs are unacceptable, as they obviously are, then why is it any different to criticize a woman with an epithet that implicitly demeans all members of her gender? The word, after all, has historically been used to insult any tough, confident or assertive woman by implying that she doesn't "know her place".

To assume that any word can be used in a vacuum, stripped of all its past connotations, simply by willing it to be so is ludicrous. A word's meaning is not wholly determined by context - individual speakers can use words in new and unique ways - but neither is it wholly determined by individual intent - else we wouldn't ever be able to communicate with each other. Even if you use that word with no sexist intent whatsoever - a highly dubious proposition, considering the way we're all influenced by culture - it's hardly reasonable to expect the recipient of your message to understand your pure heart. They're much more likely to see that word as coming with all the sexist and misogynist context that has always been attached to it, understandably so. And condescendingly telling a person that they should just ignore all that and let you decide for them when they should be offended is only going to make things worse.

There are plenty of bad ideas out there that deserve criticism. But when we criticize them, we shouldn't do it in a way that cedes the moral high ground, or that insults or alienates people whose sympathies were already with us. Nor should we tolerate others who do these things. Even the gentlest declaration of atheism is going to anger many irrational people, which is unavoidable and is no reason for us not to speak out. But we shouldn't compound that offense unnecessarily if we want atheism as a movement to flourish and succeed.

January 11, 2010, 6:48 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink357 comments

A Response to "The White Stuff"

Earlier this week, I posted a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson, "The White Stuff", about the legacy of racism in science and to what extent issues of race affect the atheist movement. Today, I want to write a response to that piece and venture some of my own thoughts on the subject.

To begin, I want to echo one of the more common objections raised in the comments: this piece was long on criticisms, short on suggested solutions. Granted, it's not the responsibility of every woman or member of a minority to educate white males on the explicit and implicit prejudices that still exist in our society (just as it's not the responsibility of every atheist to educate believers on the privileges afforded to religion). But if you're going to take the time to write about this at all, why not offer at least some suggestions as to what we can do about it?

However, that said, I still appreciate Hutchinson's bringing up this topic. Even if we don't know the solutions, this is something we should be talking about. As atheists, we should appreciate the value of consciousness-raising, of enlightening people to prejudices they may not even have realized they were holding. And as a political movement, we should recognize the value of including people of all types, including women and minorities - if for no other reason, then because it will make our criticisms more consistent and effective when we point out the examples of explicit racism that still exist in many religions - but more importantly, because I believe we have the most to offer to groups that have historically suffered the most from religious oppression.

For that reason, I strongly disagree with sentiments like this one from the comments:

I never thought I would see racial politics being brought into atheist discourse... It saddens me that, once again, skin colour and gender have taken center stage in an arena in which they do not belong.

I reject the suggestion that issues of race and gender "do not belong" in atheist discourse. Again, I agree with Hutchinson that not having to think about these issues is a privilege reserved almost exclusively for white males, whereas most women and minorities are confronted with them on a daily basis. That makes it all the more important that we do think about and discuss them, even those of us who don't have to.

Refusal to consider the possibility of unconscious bias is a sure way to perpetuate such bias, and to perpetuate the hostility that - like it or not - some women and people of color have felt from our movement and that's dissuaded them from joining us. Whether you think these criticisms are valid or not, the fact that they're being made clearly proves that some people feel snubbed. As good skeptics, we should make every effort to find out why that is, and to bend over backwards looking for anything we might have done wrong rather than dismiss the possibility out of hand. After all, we're asking religious people to reevaluate their entire worldview - the least we can do in the name of honesty is to subject our own to that same scrutiny.

I do want to take issue with a few of Hutchinson's specific points. For instance:

Surveys that suggest that atheist affiliation actually reflects race/gender demographics similar to say a John Birch Society confab are dismissed as being just the way it is because white boys naturally dominate science and are better writers anyway.

I don't agree that atheists' race and gender demographics are as distorted relative to the general population as Hutchinson suggests here. Although it is true that our movement has a decided (though not overwhelming) imbalance of males, according to the 2008 ARIS results, our racial breakdown in terms of black, white and Hispanic is virtually identical to the general population. Granted, she might be calling attention to the lack of visible, well-known atheist spokespeople who are women or people of color; in that case I would be more inclined to agree, though again there are notable exceptions.

However, more importantly, I think the accusation leveled in this paragraph is false. I know of no prominent atheist who has suggested that white males "naturally" dominate science, or that we are better writers than members of other race and gender groups. (If any counterexamples are given, I'd be glad to join in condemning them.) I know that such sentiments have been expressed by certain people, but I'm not aware of any well-known atheists who've done so.

If there's anything that does concern me, it's the attitude I've observed in many atheists when this topic is brought up - the casual, automatic dismissiveness that claims this can't possibly be a problem, that only whiners and malcontents say otherwise, and therefore there's no need for us to engage in any self-examination or consider whether we're inadvertently perpetuating any prejudice. We should know better than to say this because, as atheists, we ourselves have been on the receiving end of that patronizing message so often.

It's not PC to suggest in the science-besotted circle jerk of atheist-supernaturalist smackdowns that Hottentot-obsessed traditions of scientific racism and fire and brimstone Judeo-Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West's enlightened history.

Again, I know no one who is expressing this sentiment. Most atheists do recognize that science has been used to serve awful ends, from Sarah Baartman to the Tuskegee experiments. Science is a tool for gaining knowledge about the world, and like any tool, it can be misused. But the actions of ignorant and hateful men do not impugn the tool itself. Nor do they prove that science is an intrinsically white, male, or "Western" enterprise, or that it does not produce objective truth about the world, and I unequivocally reject any suggestion to the contrary.

And it flies in the face of the myth of meritocracy to suggest that eminent white philosophers and scientists don't "focus" on race and gender because their identities are based on not seeing it.

I also do not agree that prominent white male atheists have neglected issues of race and gender. For instance, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins devotes an entire chapter (chapter 7) to these issues in the context of how our society's moral attitudes have changed over the decades. He quotes prominent thinkers of the past, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Abraham Lincoln and H.G. Wells, to illustrate how even people who were progressive social reformers by the standards of their day held attitudes which we would describe as intolerable racism. Christopher Hitchens writes in God Is Not Great about Martin Luther King Jr. and the "filthy injustice" of racism. Daniel Dennett writes in Breaking the Spell about how racism is recognized as a great social evil and how this affects the legitimate scientific study of racial differences (for example, how people of different ethnicities may respond to certain drugs). One could argue that the New Atheists don't pay enough attention to these issues or don't treat them in sufficient depth, but to argue that they neglect them entirely is a charge that is simply not true.

Our movement is about atheism, not about racism or sexism, and there's nothing wrong with that. We don't have to give up our chosen cause altogether to address a different injustice. (Individuals, of course, can belong to more than one cause at once.) But, at the very least, these are issues we should be aware of - what they consist of, how they impact our movement (because they do), and how we can avoid obvious blunders. This is the right thing to do morally, will make the atheist movement more open and welcoming to people of all kinds, and will help us avoid repeating the mistakes that so many societies have made in the past.

December 10, 2009, 6:44 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink60 comments

The White Stuff

A note from the editor:

Hi folks,

Before I get to today's post, a guest essay by Sikivu Hutchinson, I want to preface it with a few remarks.

I've posted guest essays on Daylight Atheism from a variety of viewpoints, not all of which I personally agree with (as I hope should be obvious). I ask readers to keep that especially in mind with this post. I realize there's little probability of a visitor confusing a Christian guest viewpoint with my own, but since Sikivu Hutchinson and I agree about so many things, people might be tempted to believe we agree about everything. Therefore, I want to reiterate this to head off any potential confusion.

There are some things in the following post that I agree with, and some that I don't. I intend to write a response to it myself, but I wanted to offer my readers the chance to have their say first. I've said in the past, in regard to those who wish the "new atheists" would sit down and be quiet, that I'd rather see too much criticism of religion than too little. I think exactly the same is true of our movement. Whether you agree with her criticisms or not, I see no harm in merely letting them be heard. If you disagree, then join the conversation and explain why. —Ebonmuse

Her name was Sarah Baartman, aka the Venus Hottentot, and she had ass to spare.

Like many Africans staged for public exhibition in 19th Century Europe before her, Baartman became an object of scientific investigation. She was poked, prodded, measured, assessed and ultimately dissected in death by British and French empiricist wizards like the esteemed scientist Georges Cuvier. She was marshaled as resident Other to determine the exact nature of her "difference" from "normal" (i.e., white) men and women. This standard only had weight and relevance in the context of Baartman's grotesqueness. Her deformations provided white femininity with its mooring as the standard of feminine beauty. Her sub-humanity gave her white male examiners a biological compass (and canvas) that was then translated into immutable racial difference. The sexual deviance signified by her enormous backside literally functioned as an epistemological frame and cover for her interpreters' own cultural biases and assumptions. Identified as the "missing link," Baartman's anatomy was critical to affirming white racial superiority and capturing inexplicable gaps in the ascent from "savage" to "civilized." Through the lens of the scientist, looking, seeing and interpreting were deemed to be "transparent" enterprises--not naturalized through the cultural position of the observer.

Tim Wise, the foremost white critic/interpreter of the phenomenon of white supremacy, once noted that whites "swim in white privilege." Like fish in water, whites don't grasp or see the complexity of white privilege because they breathe it and live it 24/7. It immunizes them in the predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, social networks, media, places of worship and scholarly traditions that they inhabit. It makes the systemic institutionalized nature of racial hierarchy invisible. And it marginalizes race and racism as part of the narrow, sectarian and, ostensibly, divisive concerns of a "minority" lens.

Navigating a fantasy "post-racial" universe, these "invisible" cornerstones of white supremacy are not supposed to matter. It is not supposed to matter that a five year-old African American male has less chance statistically of going to college or even of living to the age of 25 than his white male sandbox comrade. It is not supposed to matter that home equity for blacks and Latinos of all classes has historically been far lower than that of whites due to institutional segregation in so-called inner cities and working class suburbs. These "blemishes" in the fabric of American liberal democracy are not supposed to matter because individualism is the currency of Americana, and there is no evil intelligent designer separating one's exercise of free will from free enterprise.

Yet for W.E.B. DuBois, these disparities constitute the "wages of whiteness," a public and psychological wage of white social capital, translated into everyday white privilege. For those who bemoan the "provincial" and "race-obsessed" orientation of American writers of color, DuBois implicitly forces us to consider how the very arc of European American intellectual, social and economic "progress" has been shaped by the racialization of the Other. As an artifact of a supremely barbaric and unenlightened aspect of the Enlightenment, Baartman's dissected backside was a key player in the birth of the objectivist researcher. Representing reason and rationality, Baartman's interpreters were conferred with a personhood and subjectivity that afforded them "unraced" status.

Toni Morrison has defined unraced status as the ability to appear to be beyond racial classification or identification. Whiteness becomes the norm not only through racial segregation but through the discursive tools of defining value and worth. This status rests on having the right to write, analyze, classify, quantify and have one's conclusions recognized as universal truths, rather than as the culturally contextual products of a racist colonialist legacy.

When it comes to the "new atheism," the romance and Bambified innocence of not seeing is just a living. Recent debates in the blogosphere about the whiteness of atheist discourse get sidelined by accusations about the perceived "hysteria" of those making the claim. Surveys that suggest that atheist affiliation actually reflects race/gender demographics similar to say a John Birch Society confab are dismissed as being just the way it is because white boys naturally dominate science and are better writers anyway.

So it stands to reason that white folk don't like it when it is inconveniently pointed out by ghetto interlopers that knowledge production and universal truth claims in the West have historically been marked as white. It's cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It's paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist "movement" is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It's not PC to suggest in the science-besotted circle jerk of atheist-supernaturalist smackdowns that Hottentot-obsessed traditions of scientific racism and fire and brimstone Judeo-Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West's enlightened history. It belies humanist delusions of pure objectivism to say that "science as magic bullet" boilerplate will not enlarge the conversation to include those for whom organized religion has had some cultural and historical resonance (as an albeit complicated bulwark against white supremacy and racial terrorism). It is treasonous to argue that having the luxury and privilege to proclaim one's atheism, publish, become recognized as an unraced authority, disseminate tomes to and command a global audience and garner recognition for capsizing the sordid ship of theological tyranny is a peculiarly white enterprise precisely because of the history of Western knowledge production. And it flies in the face of the myth of meritocracy to suggest that eminent white philosophers and scientists don't "focus" on race and gender because their identities are based on not seeing it.

As Greta Christina has noted in her insightful critique of racism, sexism and visibility within the new atheist movement, hand-wringing about the absence of diversity without confronting the historical power dynamics of access and visibility becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When not seeing becomes a virtue, it's equivalent to telling all those uppity "missing links" to sit down and shut up. Let us write the record for you, because we know how it ends.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.

December 7, 2009, 1:18 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink88 comments

Did Christianity Abolish Slavery?

If you've got an ugly or uncomfortable historical record that you'd like to have whitewashed, then Christian fundamentalists are the ideologues for you. Here's their latest bit of doggerel: Christians deserve the credit for abolishing African slavery!

Slavery is one of the best examples — far from being a Western Christian invention, it was ubiquitous, and it was only the Christian west that abolished it.

Jonathan Sarfati, the author of this article, points out that slavery was ubiquitous in ancient cultures (true) and that it was usually not explicitly race-based (also true). However, where he starts diverging from reality is this section, which clearly implies that Christianity deserves all the credit for abolishing slavery and fighting against racism in the Western world:

However, America had a huge number of Christians who wrote and campaigned extensively against slavery... There was also the heavily Christian-based novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), widely recognized as a major cause of people in the North turning so strongly against slavery.

I'll gladly grant that Christians played a major role in the abolitionist movement (as did freethinkers, a point I'll come to shortly). However, there's a gigantic, inconvenient fact that Sarfati strives to ignore: Who were the people who instituted slavery in the Western world in the first place?

On this point, the answer should be obvious: The slave trade was created by Christians. Specifically, it was created by European imperialists - the colonial powers such as France, Spain, Great Britain and Portugal - whose explorers were colonizing the New World and needed a steady stream of labor to work their mines and their plantations. Papal bulls such as Nicholas V's Dum Diversas granted Catholic rulers the explicit right to enslave non-Christians; it's safe to assume that the Protestant nations came up with their own theological justifications for the practice. But Catholic or Protestant, all these nations at the time were theocracies, ruled by popes and kings who claimed divine right. It was Christians, not atheists, who began the slave trade!

This inconvenient fact makes Sarfati's arguments ring hollow. I'm not denying that William Wilberforce and other Christians played a role in the abolitionist movement - but if Christianity gets the credit for abolishing slavery, shouldn't it also get the blame for instituting it in the first place? It's no excuse to claim that slavery was "ubiquitous" in the past, as if saying "everybody else was doing it too" could excuse people of responsibility. At best, one could say that these cultures belatedly realized the evil of slavery only after they themselves had instituted it and caused it to flourish for hundreds of years, and finally corrected their own mistake.

Sarfati goes on:

[Rodney] Stark documented that even back in the 7th century, Christians publicly opposed slavery. The bishop and apologist Anselm (c. 1033–1109) forbade enslavement of Christians, and since just about everyone was considered a nominal Christian, this practically ended slavery.

But this begs the question: if slavery was "practically ended" in the 7th century, then how was it the case that, several centuries later, the Christian nations of the West were back at it and enslaving Africans and Native Americans by the millions? Try as he might, he can't sidestep the fact that the colonial powers were emphatically Christian and used Christianity in their moral justifications for slavery (such as the Hamitic hypothesis - an ugly bit of racist pseudohistory that Sarfati is right to reject, but there's no denying the fact that this was the accepted view throughout the Christian world for several centuries).

Descending deeper into the absurd, Sarfati claims that the Bible is anti-slavery. This claim I've already debunked at length, so I won't repeat that here - other than to point out that he dishonestly uses a verse which condemns "menstealers" to imply that the Bible was against slavery in general. As an examination of the context makes clear, this was only a condemnation of those who kidnapped and sold people into slavery in ways other than those that the law permitted. Slavery through approved methods is a pervasive and inescapable feature of the Bible in general, in both New and Old Testaments. Sarfati also ignores verses which state that Christian slaves are doing God's will by obeying their masters, and that for a slave to disobey or rebel is blasphemous to God (1 Timothy 6:1).

Sarfati closes with the utterly ludicrous claim that the "enemies of racial equality also saw its Christian underpinning". He states that the 1963 KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham shows the "virulently anti-Christian attitudes held by fanatical racists". Yes, this is a claim that the Ku Klux Klan is anti-Christian - which is a willful and flagrant denial of reality. The KKK was and still is an explicitly Christian organization.

In the era of slavery, the true enemies of racial equality cited a Christian underpinning for their actions every bit as strongly as some abolitionists did. The best example is the fervently religious Confederate States of America, which repeatedly claimed that slavery was the will of God, which repeatedly cited the Bible, which put a Christian slogan on their official seal, and whose army chaplains boasted of the massive religious revivals that routinely occurred in the ranks:

Hundreds and thousands respond to their call and the woods resound for miles around with the unscientific but earnest music of the rough veterans of Lee's army... for conversions among the non-religious members of the army of Lee are of daily occurrence, and when they establish themselves upon the 'Mourners Bench', it is evident to all how deep and loud is their repentance. There is something very solemn in these immense choruses of earnest voices, and there are, I am sure, hundreds of these honest soldiers truly sincere in believing that they are offering their most acceptable service to God.

Let the record show that none of these revivals produced corresponding surges in abolitionist sentiment.

And it wasn't only Christians who led the fight against slavery. On the contrary, freethinkers played a role as well. In my post on the freethinker Abner Kneeland, I pointed out how his lecture hall was the only place in Boston that would give the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison a place to speak after the churches turned him away. As Garrison later said:

It was left for a society of avowed infidels to save the city from the shame of sealing all its doors against the slave's advocate.

Garrison himself was a freethinker who said, "The human mind is greater than any book... All reforms are anti-Bible" (source)

And Robert Ingersoll, the great agnostic orator, fought for the Union in the Civil War and was likewise an unflinching foe of slavery:

"We must be for freedom everywhere. Freedom is progress -- slavery is desolation, cruelty and want.

...I am astonished when I think how long it took to abolish the slave, how long it took to abolish slavery in this country. I am also astonished to think that a few years ago magnificent steamers went down the Mississippi freighted with your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, and may be some of you, bound like criminals, separated from wives, from husbands, every human feeling laughed at and outraged, sold like beasts, carried away from homes to work for another, receiving for pay only the marks of the lash upon the naked bark. I am astonished at these things. I hate to think that all this was done under the Constitution of the United States, under the flag of my country, under the wings of the eagle." (source)

In that same address, Ingersoll said to a crowd of black listeners: "Today I am in favor of giving you every right that I claim for myself." Would that the Christian world as a whole had come to that realization far earlier than it finally did.

November 2, 2009, 7:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments

Feminism's Freedom Fighter? On Feminism, Atheism and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In mainstream media, public conversation about the intersection between atheism and what I will loosely term third world feminism is as rare as Halley's Comet. In the corporate media universe, the groundbreaking work of feminists of African descent like bell hooks, Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins remains largely unknown, relegated to academe. Feminism, when invoked at all in mainstream media, is framed as the province of white women, a vestige of a less "enlightened" phase of American civil society.

The phenomenon of world renowned atheist feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, would seem to defy this pattern. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview entitled "Feminism's Freedom Fighter," the Somalian-born Ali proclaimed women's rights the human rights issue of the 21st century. An outspoken critic of Islam, Ali is a controversial and uncompromising figure with a compelling personal story of triumph over adversity. A victim of clitoral mutilation in her youth, she has dedicated her life to challenging institutional sexism and patriarchy in Muslim societies. Her activism against gender-based terrorism and repression of Muslim women has been influential in the West, generating international accolades as well as death threats from Muslim extremists. Rising to prominence in the post 9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria of the Bush era, Ali has elicited controversy for her perceived Muslim-bashing, garnering a plum position at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and morphing into a champion of Israel.

Much of Ali's feminist ideology is based on the contrast between the violent repression of women under Islam and the liberal humanist traditions that supposedly shape women's rights in the West. In her writings and public discourse she is fond of making sweeping pronouncements deriding the cultures of Muslim societies, valorizing the West in ways that downplay its cultural hierarchies. In a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine she waxed, "Western civilization is a celebration of life... everybody's life, even the life of your enemy." Of course, in many Muslim societies feminism is still a dangerously radical concept. For many Muslim feminists, the very notion of women's personal freedom is a space of epic struggle. Yet Ali's totalizing assessments set up a false dichotomy between the West and Muslim societies. By portraying feminism as a battle that the West has already won, she absolves bourgeois democracies like the United States of their schizoid relationship to women rights and human rights, a relationship in which rape and domestic violence are part of the national "democratic" currency. And by ignoring the historical context of the "third world within the first world," she ignores the very real socioeconomic differences that exist between American women of color and white women.

For Ali, white supremacy is no longer a credible threat or motivation for feminist struggle. In the Times interview she rightly criticized men of color for their perpetuation of sexist beliefs and practices, calling for heightened focus on the "internal" politics and tyrannies of misogyny in "third world" communities. Addressing the subject of President Obama's recent trip to Cairo she stated, "It would have been fantastic if...Obama had said, we have taught the white man that bigotry is bad and he has given it up, at least most of it. Now bigotry is committed in the name of the black man, the brown man, the yellow man." Ali's apparent unwillingness to engage the connection between white supremacy, imperialism and sexism is a critical blind spot. Her failure to acknowledge the persistence of institutionalized segregation and its relationship to the disenfranchisement of women of color is problematic. These biases, and her paternalistic stance on Islam, explain why she has been such a darling of the European American conservative elite.

Certainly when one assesses women's socialization into and investment in organized religion there are many commonalities between Muslim and Christian systems of patriarchy. Granted Western women are not subject to some of the more overtly terroristic and repressive social prohibitions that Muslim women are. Clitoridectomies and honor killings are not part of Western cultural practices (nor, as many critics of Ali have pointed out, do they occur in all Muslim societies, and in fact derive from tribal not Islamic law). And granted men of color are responsible for the very intimate interpersonal violations of the lives and bodies of women of color. However, legacies of colonialism and racist beliefs about the sexuality of women of color continue to limit equitable access to health care and social welfare in the U.S. Women of color in Western societies are still subjugated by the dictates of Judeo Christian culture masquerading as secularized society. Puritanical prohibitions on women's sexuality and mobility inform institutionalized sexual and domestic violence against women. Rising rates of sexually transmitted disease and (in many highly religious white fundamentalist Christian and Latino Catholic communities) compulsory pregnancy due to failed abstinence-only sex education policies continue to imperil life conditions for women. Staggeringly high HIV/AIDS contraction rates, infant mortality rates and intimate partner homicide rates among African American women bespeak unequal access to health and social services in communities of color. Epidemic rates of sexual assault among Native American women reflect not only patriarchal control but the invisibility of Native communities vis-à-vis federal health public policy.

Thus Ali's contention that the West has "adjusted" its cultural and institutional structures to redress the hierarchies of Judeo Christian ideology is short sighted. Indeed, one need look no further than the wide cultural berth given to the Religious Right to see that it is one of the most powerful contemporary threats to civil rights and civil liberty in American history. The white Christian fundamentalist movement's assault upon human rights, women's rights and reproductive justice have the potential to reverse gains women have made in the U.S. over the past few decades. In the aftermath of decades of abortion clinic vandalism, bombings and murders of practitioners there is still no international outcry over the insurgent white Christian fundamentalist terrorist movement in the U.S.

From an atheist feminist of color perspective it is problematic to espouse reductive critiques of non-Western religions through the lens of a Western or American exceptionalism; particularly when these paradigms are based on the othering of people of color. The West has xenophobically demonized Muslim societies for their backwardness while "whitewashing" its own anti-democratic traditions and human rights transgressions. Ali's perspectives unfortunately reinforce this propaganda.

As an atheist woman of African descent Ali's life narrative and struggle for gender justice is a powerful example for women under the yoke of traditional Islam. Yet her analysis of the path to liberation has been severely clouded by superstar patronage from the very forces that would undermine the human rights mission of feminism.

October 26, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink68 comments

Poetry Sunday: Paul Laurence Dunbar

I'm especially pleased to be able to showcase this new poet in this week's edition of Poetry Sunday. In the past, I've highlighted the lives and the accomplishments of famous African-American freethinkers like W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston, showing that religious skepticism and freethought have always played a lively role in the American black community. Today's post offers another example of that.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Ohio in June 1872 to two ex-slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother, who supported the family by working as a washerwoman. Despite their poverty, she taught him a love of reading and a desire for education, and he began composing his own poems by the age of six and was reciting poetry in public by the age of nine. Though he was the only African-American student in his class at the otherwise all-white Dayton Central High School, he excelled academically and even became class president. He also served briefly as editor of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper published by his classmates Orville and Wilbur Wright.

After graduation, Dunbar launched his literary career with his first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy (1892). His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) was well-received critically and brought him national attention in newspapers and magazines such as Harper's Weekly and the Sunday Evening Post. His work attracted admirers such as the abolitionist hero and ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who called him "the most promising young colored man in America", as well as Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Dunbar wrote superb poetry both in standard English and in African-American dialect, though it was always a source of resentment on his part that the latter tended to be more sought-after by editors. Nevertheless, he was a prolific author throughout his life, turning out poetry, novels, short story collections, lyrics for musicals, and even a play - In Dahomey, the first Broadway musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans - right up until his untimely death in 1906, at the age of 33, from tuberculosis. Some of his work had a strong flavor of freethought, as we can see in today's poem.


I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,
For human wants and human needs
Are more to me than prophets' deeds;
And human tears and human cares
Affect me more than human prayers.

Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!
You fret high Heaven with your plaint.
Is this the "Christian's joy" you paint?
Is this the Christian's boasted bliss?
Avails your faith no more than this?

Take up your arms, come out with me,
Let Heav'n alone; humanity
Needs more and Heaven less from thee.
With pity for mankind look 'round;
Help them to rise — and Heaven is found.

Other posts in this series:

October 25, 2009, 8:26 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

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