THE BLOG

When Challenging Racism, Humanists Need to Step Up

02/03/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

The events of recent months exposed racial division and conflict in this nation. The unnecessary deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, unarmed black men killed by white police officers, served as a catalyst for protests against long-simmering institutional racism. This also was brought to the fore as conservative officials across the country made disparaging racial remarks about our first black President, a top news item that led many to question what exactly is being done to counter racism.

Some religious institutions and individuals are among those stirring the pot of prejudice, and other religious groups worked towards racial reconciliation. But while some challenged or promoted racism, the nonreligious community remained largely behind the scenes, seemingly content to allow individuals to speak their mind about the issue rather than organizing officially to do something about it.

This a particular missed opportunity, as the nonreligious community, and especially we humanists, are dedicated proponents of equal rights and equal treatment for all as a moral foundation for progress. In our ongoing secular struggle to defend against the well-funded faithful forces that want to merge church and state, we neglect to focus on an issue that truly make us humanists: standing against racial prejudice.

Just as humanists work to ensure that laws aren't made that discriminate against the LGBTQ community on religious grounds, so must we work to ensure that laws are made to ensure equal treatment for racial minorities. Among areas this can be practically applied is in seeking rules that ensure police get the training they need be welcome protectors, not antagonistic threats to our safety. Humanists have worked on the issue of institutionalized discrimination in the past, such as opposing illegal NYPD profiling of Muslim citizens, but we can and must do more.

I spoke with Mandisa L. Thomas, president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc, and she said, "While the efforts to increase diversity within the secular community show improvement, there's still more action that needs to be taken in order to yield true progress. These conversations must not end at meetings and conferences; they must continue frequently, and then be followed by practical steps. Only then will it prove we matter." And with the idea of doing more, Mandisa said that they are seeking collaborators for a new project they are launching called New Turn: Secular Solutions for Recidivism. It's dedicated to giving ex-convicts and at-risk youths professional and life skills from a secular approach. It's meaningful projects like this that will do good and help establish atheist credibility.

It's important for humanists to be active participants in the struggle against instructional racism not only because our core values require us to do so, but because the growth of humanism is dependent on it. Many black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics see their church not just as a place of worship, but as a staging ground in the struggle for equality. Local atheist and humanist communities must develop a similarly strong reputation for defending rights. Right now, many people stay in churches who don't believe the theology but embrace the opportunities for community activism. Secular options must exist for that as well that underline our commitment to civil rights and liberties. We must do more as a movement to make marginalized communities feel like equal parts of our society if we truly wish to live up to our mission and remain relevant in the future.