Do black atheists have different concerns than white atheists? Absolutely, say organizers of a first-of-its-kind conference to be held by atheists of color in Los Angeles this weekend. And, they add, it’s about time those issues got some attention.
Called “Moving Social Justice,” the conference will tackle topics beyond the usual atheist conference fare of confronting religious believers and promoting science education. Instead, organizers hope to examine issues of special interest to nonwhite atheists, especially the ills rooted in economic and social inequality.
“Atheism is not a monolithic, monochromatic movement,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, an atheist activist, author and founder of Los Angeles’ Black Skeptics, one member of a coalition of black atheist and humanist groups staging the conference.
“By addressing issues that are culturally and politically relevant to communities of color, we are addressing a range of things that are not typically addressed within the mainstream atheist movement.”
The conference is unusual for an atheist gathering in another important way — its lineup of speakers includes members of the religious community. Hutchinson, often an outspoken critic of religion, described the conference as “effectively an interfaith conference.”
“The vast majority of people of color in the U.S. are religious, not only due to culture and history but because of persistent segregation in the U.S.,” Hutchinson said. “Most communities of color don’t have access to the kinds of social, recreational and economic resources provided by secular institutions and nonprofits in predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods. So in order to be relevant to communities of color . . . atheists and humanists of color must collaborate with progressive religious organizations.”
Indeed, the slate of panel topics reads like a to-do list of progressive Christianity: confronting homophobia, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and battling racism, among others.
Organizers say social justice is a greater concern to atheists of color than the church-state separation issues the broader organized atheist community often focuses on. Why? Because social justice issues are more pressing in their communities.
“There are people in our community that, while they may not believe in God, they are only going to sit down and listen to you talk about separation of church and state for so long,” said Kimberly Veal, a Chicago-based black atheist who helped organize the conference. “What is really on their mind is decent housing, feeding their children and affording school clothes.”
“Atheism,” she continued, “is not enough.”
It is often faith-based organizations that tackle social problems in communities of color, running food banks or day care centers or job training programs through churches. Advocates say that’s both a challenge and an opportunity for organized atheism.
“We think it is important to work with anybody who will work with us,” Veal said. “Regardless of our ideologies, we all live in these communities.”
The Rev. Meredith Moise, a Baltimore-based priest in the Apostolic Catholic Church who will speak at the conference, said there is both reason and urgency for people of faith and atheists to coordinate on social justice issues.
“Social justice issues go to the heart of what it means to be a human being,” she said. “Beyond our religious differences, we need to work together and solve these issues . . . We don’t really have time to waste.”
According to the Pew Research Center, African-Americans are the smallest segment of the self-identified atheist population in the U.S. — just 3 percent. Whites make up 82 percent of the same group, Latinos claim another 6 percent and Asians claim 4 percent.
Veal estimates there are “several hundred” members of black atheist groups in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Each of those communities will be represented at the conference, she said.
And while organized or “movement” atheism is growing, its membership remains relatively small and — like the U.S. atheist population overall — predominantly white. American Atheists claims a membership of about 4,500, while the American Humanist Association claims 30,000 members and donors. Pew counts the number of self-identified atheists or agnostics in the U.S. at 5.7 percent, or about 13.7 million people, based on the U.S. Census figures for 2012.
For those numbers to grow and diversify, organized atheism must look beyond church-state issues — and must reach out to religious leaders and groups with similar concerns, Veal and Hutchinson said.
“It is a privilege of the white atheist movement to disavow issues of economic inequality,” Hutchinson said. “We should be looking at these issues of social justice and secularism in an intersectional way.”
David Silverman, the white president of American Atheists, said he will attend the conference because while he believes church-state separation issues should remain a cornerstone of movement atheism, he also believes it must be more diverse.
“I represent a part of a greater movement that also includes atheists who concentrate on social justice issues,” Silverman said. “I strive to keep in touch with the greater movement while I concentrate on my segment, and this weekend’s convention provides a great opportunity to do so.”
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