White Savior Atheism isn’t Exactly Full of Love, Either

I have made the same mistakes outlined in this article, myself. Consider this post a primer for white people. If you want the full story, go to those who know best–people of color themselves.

Natalie Reed recently wrote a blog post on her views regarding religion and the trans community. Or rather, her views regarding religion and the trans community, people of color, indigenous people, and so on. She claims that her target is “religious faith itself”, not Abrahamic religion. She claims that she isn’t racist or ethnocentric in her perspective because she condemns all religion equally.

She’s not the only white atheist to push this kind of argument. So has Greta Christina. In one of her more nuanced posts, Greta says that her main argument against religion is that atheism is more correct, not that religion is inherently harmful. That is all and good, except that we white atheists don’t leave well enough alone. Let’s be honest: Maybe we keep our opinions personal on an individual basis, but on the whole we stick our noses into places we don’t belong. Take, for instance, the recent billboard by American Atheists in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that targeted the black community.

This is where “I’m just more correct” goes horribly wrong, as Sikivu Hutchinson explains. Secular “reasoning” has driven well-meaning white activists to Africa, where they have done more harm than good (while pushing ulterior motives, to boot). Secular “reasoning” has driven well-meaning Western feminists into Islamic communities to tell women there the proper way to empower themselves. Guess what, that didn’t go as planned, either.

Let’s be honest: Maybe [us white people] keep our opinions personal on an individual basis, but on the whole we stick our noses into places we don’t belong.

The takeaway lesson is that we do not empower other people to make better decisions by invading their cultures and telling them they’re wrong. When you dictate what others should believe from a position of privilege, all you do is kick people who are already down. White people already make ourselves into patriarchal authority figures; telling people of color what they should believe just amplifies that reality.

If you truly care about the harm religion causes in cultures outside of your own, then learn about those cultures. Sacrifice your own resources to help them–not to tell them the Right Way to do things, but to empower them to make their own decisions. First and foremost, keep quiet and listen. A proper scientist walks into new territory with humility. You step gently, you take careful measurements, you leave no trace. Atheist crusaders, by comparison, hack and slash their way through other people’s communities with no regard for who they crush in the process.

Do you think atheists are absent from non-white cultures? Do you think they want white people bursting into their world to tell their families what is right and what is wrong? Do you think the white atheist invasion of marginalized spaces helps atheists living in those spaces, or hurts them? Do you think your “rightness” on the subject of religion gives you the right to preach to communities you don’t belong to? Let atheists in Islamic countries speak for themselves. Let atheists in black and latin@ communities speak for themselves. Let African atheists speak for themselves. This is how we build community. An actual community, rather than a kingdom run by whites.

I’ll leave you once again with a person of color who says it better than I ever could, Kavita Ramdas, on the related subject of authoritarian Western feminism.

Kavita Ramdas: Radical women, embracing tradition

15 thoughts on “White Savior Atheism isn’t Exactly Full of Love, Either

  1. What Greta and I advocate is NOT busting into other cultures to tell them what’s what. We simply try to keep the lines of discourse open, and not condescend to assume that the poor defenseless non-white folk need to be protected from our nasty atheism, science, education, etc. because their religion is so so fundamental to their magical exotic culture.

    I’m also staunchly opposed to the appalling “slavery” billboard. I think it was racist as hell, and sends an extremely bad image, especially given that atheism already has an image of being a bunch of snobby white cis straight male elites sitting in the den smoking pipes.

    Yes, OF COURSE there are atheists of colour. Like Sikivu Hutchinson herself (who happens to blog at my network, Freethought Blogs). Or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Or Ian Cromwell. Etc. We need to give them the space to speak, and support their voice, not erase or marginalize them by acting like atheism and science are “a white thing”. And rather than demonizing atheism as such, and essentializing minority identities by acting like religious belief is fundamental to them, we need to instead encourage atheism to adapt it’s “one size fits all” model (a size that happens to fit white, straight, cis men best) to make room for PoC, women, queer people, etc.

    And of course it bears pointing out that I am a trans woman myself, speaking about religion in the trans community, NOT a cis person speaking to what trans people ought to believe. And Greta is a queer woman too, not speaking from a hetero position on what queer people ought to believe. And I absolutely do resent people USING US to talk about the inherently “privileged” nature of atheism, which does indeed erase atheists like us, and those of us who are fighting for diversity within the atheist community, and fighting to have our voices heard. It erases the struggle we undertake, AGAINST the often problematically privileged attitudes within the atheist community, simply to have our voices heard. A struggle we pursue because we feel it’s important. Because faith is dangerous. Because thought, questions, doubt, critical inquiry, discourse… those are the tools of progress.

    The principle means through which trans women have been victimized in our culture is through the perpetuation of myths and misunderstandings, through religious tenets about the “sinfult” nature of our identities, and through essentialist notions of gender taken on faith as “common sense”. Education, critical thought and discourse is how we’ve been able to move forward.

    There is no fundamental disconnect between my being a feminist, a skeptic, a trans-rights advocate and an atheist. They ALL stem from the same place: my belief in the value of education, clarity, thinking things through, critique, discourse, free thinking, etc.

    • So where does your position leave black trans women who are atheists? Who may also not want us barging in? PoC don’t need to be protected from “your” atheism. They need to defend themselves from our whiteness. Because of entitled attitudes like the one you are displaying right now, and that I have displayed in the past.

      “not erase or marginalize them by acting like atheism and science are ‘a white thing'”

      By telling PoC what they should believe, we make it a white thing. Because race still matters, even when discussing religion.

      “essentializing minority identities by acting like religious belief is fundamental to them”

      False dichotomy. The discussion about religion among PoC needs to happen. And is happening. But neither of us will be a part of it. Period. No matter how hard any of us try to be a part of it, the only inroad we could make is in how PoC tell us to GTFO.

      “we need to instead encourage atheism to adapt it’s ‘one size fits all’ model (a size that happens to fit white, straight, cis men best) to make room for PoC”

      We can do this by sitting the fuck down when PoC speak up. That’s basic Privilege Check 101. There isn’t room when we sit around shouting from bullhorns at them like the supreme paternal authority. We can’t encourage atheism itself. We can encourage white people within atheism to leave the intersection of race and religion to those who know best. (Hint: It’s not white people.)

      I never said there was a disconnect between being a skeptic, a feminist, and a trans-rights advocate, while being an atheist. But feminism and white trans rights have also consistently ignored and trampled over the needs of PoC. Whether it’s white feminists lashing out against burqas, or us white trans people appropriating “two-spirit” and pretending the DoR has nothing to do with race.

      If you value education, then read up on the intersection of racism and religion. If you value critique, then listen to the critique you’re getting right now. Because I’m not making this up on my own. It’s from the mouths of experts. Don’t make me keep up the Tim Wise bit, I really can’t stand it. If you value free thought, stop letting white privilege do the thinking for you.

  2. And where exactly was I barging into a PoC space and telling them what to believe?! Hmmm? Because last I checked, my blog, where I wrote the piece, is MY space.

    The points made about race in the article were to address the erroneous bullshit accusations of my atheism being inherently “white” because I was conflating “religion” with “abrahamic religion”, which plainly isn’t the case.

    I didn’t tell PoC what to believe. I discussed my views on the issue of faith. Yours is just yet another in a long series of unsubstantiated arguments that suggest religion MUST be given special deference above other ideas.

    Nor am I inserting myself into the discussion of religion within PoC communities. That is false projection. Mine was a discussion of religion within the trans community, which is a conversation I am COMPLETELY permitted to partake in.

    I also did not simply speak from my whiteness or privilege when composing the portions of the post related to race, which were designed to preemptively defuse the sort of angry, vicious, unsubstantiated “atheism is racist!” attacks you’re making. I sought out the input from my friend and colleauge Ian Cromwell on how to address the topic sensitively, and made sure to have his blessing.

    Yes, feminism, and the trans community, and often the atheist community (such as with the stupid slavery billboard) have all treated PoC poorly. But I fail to see a single legitimate argument as to how me (or Greta) are doing so simply by talking about the dangers of religion. Unless you conflate religion DIRECTLY with race, then it’s bullshit to call me racist or privileged just for discussing the non-existence of God and the dangers of faith-based belief systems.

    • “my blog, where I wrote the piece, is MY space.”

      Which has an effect outside of that space, especially when exerting privilege. Just like cis people saying “trans people wouldn’t need to transition if only we abandoned gender” has an effect outside of the blog it’s posted to.

      “that suggest religion MUST be given special deference above other ideas”

      I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about race.

      “Mine was a discussion of religion within the trans community”

      You explicitly call out ALL religion, which means you call out non-white religion. That isn’t “the trans community”. That’s PoC space.

      “unsubstantiated ‘atheism is racist!’ attacks you’re making”

      Atheism isn’t racist. White people who happen to be atheists are racist.

      “I fail to see a single legitimate argument”

      You certainly have failed.

      [removed responses to unapproved comment]

      • I don’t know enough about your main point, but I want to point out that this:

        “You made it about race and religion, by bringing up non-white religion as a white person.”

        is an unfair double bind. If atheists only mention Christianity, Judaism, or Abrahamic religion in general, we get accused of neglecting general arguments about religion; and, if white, of erasing non-white cultures and religions. If we speak about all religions, or about specific non-white religious communities, we are told we’re speaking about race and religion rather than just religion; and, if white, chided for telling non-white people what to think.

        • I have never been accused of neglecting general arguments about religion. Where does this happen? And if it does happen, now you can explain why that’s a nonsense argument. If you read up enough on how white privilege works, one of the key features is how prone we are to making sweeping universalizing statements, instead of recognizing we exist within a specific culture (white culture). In the US especially, we lack an understanding that only we really have the privilege to think of ourselves as people first, and white/American second. It’s not like that for anyone else.

    • It’s an example of white people barging in and telling people of color what’s what. The religion is irrelevant; the main problem is white people telling PoC what to do. Regardless of topic.

  3. Let African atheists speak for themselves. This is how we build community. An actual community, rather than a kingdom run by whites.

    Aren’t you speaking out for people of color in general rather than letting them speak for themselves by writing this article?

    • I am speaking about harmful actions invoking white privilege, to other white people. I’m not telling PoC what to do. I’m telling other white people to get a clue.

      “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

      From one elephant to another, lift your freaking leg.

      • Was Natalie telling Black Atheists what to do? The issue isn’t that you are telling people what to do, but that you are speaking for them rather than letting them judge for themselves whether they are offended.

        • Yes, by adopting a one-size-fits-all criticism of religion, Natalie and other white anti-theists are telling PoC what to do. I don’t have a problem with anti-theism. What I have a problem with is people not understanding how privilege intersects with anti-theism. Go ahead and be anti-theist to religions that are directly a part of white culture. Support anti-theist PoC in whatever ways you can. But the one-size-fits-all approach is inescapably racist.

          PoC are critiquing attitudes like those of Natalie and Greta, atheists and religious believers alike. I’m not some lone crusader here. There’s a reason Natalie is angry about “all these responses popping up”. I’m curious: Did you read the links in my post?

          • Yes I did. The thing is, you are using Sikivu to promote a view she doesn’t agree with. Here’s her friend and blog partner, Frederick Sparks, defending Greta from charges of racism by Be Scofield.


            The last time a white person rode in to say that a general critique of religion was racist, Frederick said that was paternalistic and that Sikivu agreed with him.

          • There’s a difference between saying “Let those poor people have their Jesus” and saying “This discussion shouldn’t be spearheaded by white people.” Most PoC I’ve spoken to have said as much. Their reactions to generalized anti-theism are the reason I wrote the post in the first place. At this point our debate is “PoC I know versus PoC you know,” so once again, we need to sit back and let them have the discussion involving their own community. Which just bolsters my point. But I don’t think we can really take this any further. Thank you for bringing up some good points.

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