An Intersection of Perspectives
About a year ago, I shifted the focus of my reading and blogging to the topics of religion, atheism, and agnosticism. Prior to that shift, I blogged almost exclusively about sex, gender, and feminism. I decided to take a vacation from these topics for two reasons: I had simply “burned out” in exploring these topics and I had developed a weariness with the ways that feminism mishandles transgender issues. You can read about my feelings and revelations on feminism and transgender issues here and here.
During the past year, I immersed myself in the world of internet non-believers. Although I am hardly a newcomer in my own disbelief of deities, I had never bothered to read the words of other non-believers. My primary focus had been sociology, sex/gender, feminism, and LGBT issues.
This past year has proven to be a learning experience. After a year of atheist immersion, I find myself missing feminism, in spite of its flaws. It’s amazing how much one can learn to appreciate home while traveling abroad.
One of feminist theory’s strengths is that it recognizes that people’s identities are complex constructs that include influences and experiences from a whole host of demographic characteristics. How one experiences social forces is complicated by a variety of contributing factors that extend far beyond sex and gender. One is not merely female or male (or something beyond that dichotomy). One’s identity also includes one’s race, class, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, geographic origin, and so on. Out of this recognition of intersectionality flows a far more detailed understanding of how people experience discrimination and prejudice. While feminism’s real-life implementation of this approach can leave something to be desired, I have found that it still tends to yield a far more nuanced understanding of social issues than the native perspectives of other philosophical pursuits.
An intersectional approach has been largely absent in the writings of atheists and agnostics. While I suspect that many non-believers might roll their eyes and dismiss such concerns as “politically correct babble”, it might actually provide a deeper understanding of what non-believers experience in a culture that is dominated by theistic philosophies.
At its root, non-believers are a body of people whose perspectives on spiritual and religious matters place them in a minority position. Like any minority, they face specific kinds of discrimination and negative attitudes which are perpetrated by the majority/dominant populace. Those who embrace the dominant spiritual and religious beliefs are accorded certain privileges that work toward the collective benefit of their group. Those who do not share the views of the dominant populace face certain kinds of disadvantages and these disadvantages impact non-believers in ways that constrict their lives. These disadvantages and privileges are structured into common social conventions and many social and governmental institutions.
The above paragraph is easily modified to describe virtually any minority populace who faces discrimination and oppression. There are common classes of experiences shared by various minority populaces because those populaces all exist as outgroups in relation to a more powerful and usually more numerous ingroup.
From what I’ve witnessed, it seems as though the newest batch of atheists and agnostics are just starting to realize the scope of this reality. There’s a lot of emphasis on lining up one’s ideological ducks to ensure proper, logical thinking regarding the existence of deities, the evolutionary origin of life, and general scientific concepts, but the discourse grows a bit thin when it comes to more sociological matters. There’s certainly a general awareness of being a minority viewpoint, but in many respects, people seem to be “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to grappling with the social dynamics that govern non-believers’ struggles with the dominant culture.
In some ways, I think this reflects a divide that I have encountered in the academic world. Rarely did I see intermingling take place between those who hailed from the social sciences and humanities vs. those who hailed from the biological sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. I was one of the few students whose eclectic academic pursuits took her into both realms of academia. The divide was striking and as best I could tell, reflected two very different ways of encountering and understanding the world.
The current batch of vocal non-believers seems to embrace a way of approaching the world that reflects the biological and physical science backgrounds of some of the more popular atheist authors. While this is useful in backing up one’s philosophical positions with evidence from the natural world, it largely misses the mark when trying to grapple with issues of a social hue.
Numerous questions come to mind. How does being an atheist impact one’s relationship with others? What does it mean to be an atheist mother raising children in a Christian society? Since women are still seen as the primary caretakers of children, and thus responsible for their moral guidance, does this reduce the likelihood of women embracing atheism? How does one handle being atheist if one hails from an ethnicity whose cultural traditions center upon religion? Do secular gatherings meet the needs of single mothers and fathers? Are they impacted differently? How does a childhood filled with negative messages about atheists impact one’s sense of self and one’s attitudes toward other non-believers as an adult non-believer? How does religious and cultural pluralism benefit all philosophical and spiritual minorities, including atheists and agnostics? How does it exclude them and how can pluralism be modified so that this is remedied? Could a shared history of discrimination make natural allies of atheism and oppressed minority faiths? Can internalized negative attitudes toward non-believers impact the emotional well being of atheists and agnostics and contribute toward higher levels of conflict in their organizations? If one is poor and strongly depends upon the support of one’s family and community, how likely is one to risk ostracism by rejecting the religious traditions of family and community? Does this introduce class issues into the topic of atheism? How does coming out as a non-believer impact one’s familial relationships when one has already experienced prior strain upon those relationships by coming out as LGBT? How do the privileges of religious people lead to the exclusion of non-believers from the many social institutions that are geared toward fostering social ties, social networking among professionals, and community support in times of need? How does this exclusion effect a person when one faces other forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and sexism?
Yes, I have seen atheist/agnostic writers try to tackle some of these questions, but they often seem to be doing this in a vacuum. There has been some recognition that there is a commonality shared with the experiences of LGBT people. This is not surprising since LGBT issues have been widely scrutinized by the public during the past ten to fifteen years. LGBT people are impacted negatively by dominant religious beliefs, just as non-believers are. The connection is an obvious one and thus fosters a natural association between the two issues. However, non-believers largely miss the intersection of their own experiences with those who hail from other communities. (Plus, other than the occasional news article, I see little evidence that straight, non-transgender atheists/agnostics have actually read much literature produced by LGBT people.) There is a goldmine of information out there if one looks for it. The foundation for understanding such questions has already been laid by others. Hence, there is a need to broaden one’s base of knowledge. Otherwise, one is left to waste time and energy covering ground that has already been explored.
So, what do I recommend? Above all, diversify your reading. There are piles upon piles of books, blogs, magazines, professional journals, and web resources written by people who come from other minority backgrounds. Read about the struggles of African Americans, women, LGBT people, farm laborers, religious minorities, the poor, immigrants, and so on. Pick up an introductory text for sociology or anthropology. If you are a college student, take courses that explore queer theory, women’s studies, and racial oppression. Learn how social forces interplay between groups in conflict. Think about how other people’s experiences resemble and differ from your own.
Be forewarned: what you learn might very well make you feel uncomfortable at first. From what I’ve been able to surmise, the more active parts of the atheist community seem to be largely populated by white males who lie outside of the LGBT spectrum of identities. Consequently, as a good number of you explore these materials, many of your assumptions and privileges are going to be challenged and that’s never a comfortable endeavor. Nevertheless, you will develop a more nuanced understanding of your own experiences as a member of a minority group by understanding how others have coped with discrimination and prejudice.
Furthermore, if you want to foster environments that attract non-believers from beyond the usual demographic pool of middle class guys with light complexions, you’ll need to understand the perspectives of those who tend to shy away from atheist gatherings. You might discover that you have certain attitudes that inadvertently create discomfort in those people outside of your particular group. Speaking as a transgender person and a woman, there are certain blind spots in the atheist community that annoy me and thus serve to alienate me. Given some of the spectacular scuffles I’ve seen in the atheist blogosphere lately, I’m guessing that I’m not alone.
Besides, venturing beyond one’s usual haunts can give one new perspectives on prior bodies of knowledge. My foray into the atheist blog world has certainly helped me realize the importance of what I learned from feminism and it has given me a more nuanced understanding of my own “home-base” of philosophies. I strongly suspect that other non-believers could benefit similarly. Venture outside of your comfort zone. Learn. Isn’t that part of the spirit of empiricism?