02/25/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Disbelief Doesn't Cure Discrimination

The nation's conversation about discrimination continued unabated since the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but he certainly wasn't the only victim of discrimination in recent times. If he was, Renisha McBride, Islan Nettles, and Dzuy Dhun Phan would still be alive today. As these stories make clear, discrimination comes in many forms against people who are black, transgender, atheist, and more. Humanists fight hard against discrimination, not only because it impacts nonbelievers on a daily basis, but because humanists believe that a person should be treated fairly and humanely regardless of who they love, how they identify, what they look like, what they believe, or what they don't believe.

While humanism is a progressive philosophy that seeks to expand thinking and help those in need, individual humanists can still be subject to prejudices that are constantly being reinforced by the dominant culture. Unfortunately, a number of humanists suffer from a blind spot when it comes to their own personal prejudices, as many fail to understand that just because they identify with a non-discriminatory philosophy of life, their baser prejudices don't just suddenly disappear.

This is especially clear when we take a hard look at a few of the icons of nontheism who are part of our historic roots. Charles Darwin, respected for his positive contributions to science, and celebrated earlier this month for Darwin Day, showed just how imperfect human minds can be, even if accomplished in a number of areas. Darwin, who pioneered the field of evolutionary biology, stated in his book The Descent of Man that "the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world." The fact that people of Darwin's time and place carried similar false assumptions of racial superiority doesn't excuse this poorly applied thinking. Darwin was joined in his unresolved prejudice by another famed atheist, Bertrand Russell, who stated in his book Marriage and Morals that "it seems on the whole fair to regard Negroes as on the average inferior to white men."

As Norm Allen details in his multipart series "Dissin' Blacks in the Name of Science," the attempts to use science to prove white superiority are many -- fortunately, the nature of science to constantly challenge assumptions is a remedy against much of these kinds of failings. The willingness of science, and humanism, to change its views when proven wrong distinguishes it from theism and dogma-based religions. That evolutionary aspect has provided fertile ground for the progress we've seen since Darwin's day.

We're in no utopia yet however, and racism isn't the only holdover of prejudice in the nontheist world, as shown by atheist/skeptic Michael Shermer when he discussed why women aren't participating as much in the skeptical movement. As you can see in this video, he says, "It's who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who's intellectually active about it; you know, it's more of a guy thing." And atheist activist Wafa Sultan essentially proposed a problematic response to Islam, suggesting we deal with the Muslim world in a manner similar to how the U.S. dealt with Japanese extremism in World War II. These examples show that people may discard their theism and embrace scientific thinking, but that doesn't make one superior, nor does it eradicate societal prejudices.

If we use our intuition, and examine the record, we'd realize that the nontheist community is still susceptible to maintaining and acting on prejudices, although according to some studies we are less likely to do so than majority religious communities. So it's not a surprise to see members of the movement calling for an end to the Muslimophobia by nontheist leaders and an end to the other forms of discrimination that were seen in the movement. If we know where our blind spots might be, we can better protect against them.

While we've seen general improvement on this issue in recent decades, a few modern nontheistic leaders have been known to make discriminatory statements. Such statements may not represent pervasive discriminatory attitudes, but it's time to expect more of our leaders. If this movement is to achieve its potential, such leaders must not only get used to living in a world with differences, but learn to value them and to prioritize communicating in ways that invite diversity. Humanists and other secular-minded people of every level need to understand that "isms" like sexism and racism don't go away just because we identify as atheists or humanists. We need to unpack our privileges and cultural baggage in order to stop discriminatory behavior. And we still have to fight against ingrained prejudice if we hope to achieve our humanist aspirations. Humanist identity is a good basis for challenging prejudice, but not a perfect inoculation against it.