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The New Atheist Movement Should Care About Poverty

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When new atheism emerged at the beginning of the millennium, perhaps the quickest stereotypes to flank authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins were "elitist" and "self-satisfied." Many in today's atheist movement -- the collection of organizations and activists working to build a culture safer for nonbelievers, combat dogmatism and in some cases eliminate religion itself -- would dismiss these stereotypes as a baseless smear campaign by their adversaries. We value truth and think we're right about something -- which hardly seems different from the attitude of many believers. That itself doesn't mean we consider ourselves "superior" to them.

There's something toxic, though, that permeates this movement, something that may well inspire and support the stereotypes that have lingered for years. The atheist movement, in composition and purpose, has in the last decade failed to demonstrate a meaningful dedication to fighting economic inequality and building a safe space for nontheists regardless of their socioeconomic class. Despite all their talk of building a better world and upholding diversity, contemporary atheism and humanism's most prominent authors and leaders have been suspiciously silent on the topic of poverty. This limits the movement's ability achieve universal compassion, and renders it unattractive to those who don't occupy a comfortable spot on the social hierarchy.

What's even worse: the atheist movement's implicit dismissal of class inequality greatly hinders its ability to build meaningful and sustainable partnerships with other moral communities, either as a function of or a result of this disregard. It creates distance between organized atheism and religious groups that are predominantly composed of the underprivileged. Without these partnerships, the idea of building "a better world" is not only unachievable, but incoherent.

The last decade is peppered with blatant examples of outright classist language and motivation that has directly distanced the atheist movement from peer religious communities. Richard Dawkins has an affinity for referring to the "educated elite" (as he does in The God Delusion) or to "elite scientists" in discussing atheist demographics--essentially, he appeals to the fact that because those in the overclass of academia share a particular view, those below them ought to strive towards it as well. In doing so, he implies that they might too achieve some sort of enlightened intellectual prosperity that these privileged elite scientists have been graced with. Atheists today allege that the stereotypes discussed earlier are leveled purely out of the insecurity of the religious position. Yet, it seems they are rather an indictment of the movement's narrow, upper-class focus, which both ignores and marginalizes the underprivileged who haven't access to the same educational opportunities.

Organizations have made the same transgressions. Last fall American Atheists sponsored a Twitter hashtag, intended to somehow fight Islamic censorship, declaring "#IslamIsBarbaric". In doing so, they simultaneously made a bigoted and broad-brushing statement about one of the largest religions in the world. Was the campaign effective? Did certain Muslims feel so intimidated as to put a stop on calls for censorship? Nothing of the sort. It seems to have done little more than violently marginalize Western Muslims (likely the only Muslims who would actually see the hashtag), calling them "barbaric" to emphasize how economically and technologically inferior this religious demographic must be to these elite American atheists.

David Hoelscher and Sikivu Hutchinson have already written considerably on atheism's "class problem", and Hutchinson particularly notes how it creates distance and brutal tension between the (predominantly white) atheist community and poorer black communities, which might have closeted nontheists in their midst. While the current movement limits itself to honing arguments and gleefully ridiculing the religious Others who don't share their educational privilege, those in poor communities are often bound by a strong local church. The economically underprivileged remain simultaneously inspired and motivated by their religion, albeit potentially oppressed by its certainty and prejudice. Yet, in essence, we disregard these as lost causes. Hutchinson writes in her essay "Prayer Warriors and Freethinkers" for The New Humanism: "If mainstream freethought and humanism continue to reflect the narrow cultural interests of white elites who have disposable income to go to conferences then the secular movement is destined to remain marginal and insular."

In siphoning themselves off from lower-class church communities, humanists and other social justice-minded nonbelievers disregard key allies in the fight towards a world safer for diversity and freethought. In the South in the '50s and '60s, it was through the incredible network of black churches in African-American communities that activists were able to organize and share information, and ultimately achieve to the unprecedented successes of Civil Rights. These communities empowered their members, yet atheists construct a presumption that these communities must be in need of empowerment. It seems to be borne from a fear of all things associated with religion: a given atheist is often known to talk about fighting "religion" rather than "dogmatism" or "supernaturalism", as if "religion" were a wholly poisonous monolith. Ostensibly, that empowerment would come from outsiders, from white elite atheists who by all accounts seem more interested in pointing fingers and laughing at believers rather than investing in improving the educational complex and broken welfare system that has destroyed these communities in the first place.

In working towards a socially just society, aligning oneself with communities and organizations that have already shown tremendous strength in fighting injustice would seem essential. For instance, intuitively, to fight racism, progressive groups composed largely of privileged whites have to work with racial minorities. Likewise, the economically privileged have to align with the impoverished. Yet all oppression is interconnected; and to simply ignore, or give no more than lip-service to, an issue as imminent and ubiquitous as poverty grossly limits a movement's ability to fight social injustice in all forms. The atheist movement has in recent years been a megaphone in support of LGBT rights--but without considering the plights of LGBT individuals who might be struggling in low-income households, or who might not have access to the health coverage to afford Saquinavir in fighting HIV, how much good-without-god is really being accomplished?

The problem works both ways: while class ignorance inhibits the ability for atheists to coordinate and work together with their religious peers, religious discrimination on the part of atheists paints them with a classist brush. This is perhaps most evident in the case of atheistic Islamophobia, which author Chris Stedman thoroughly documented in his essay "Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril." As atheist authors like Sam Harris were skyrocketed to fame on the heels of September 11th, writing that religion (not politics, nor poverty) was the primary motivating factor in the attacks, the question arose: is Islam (and therefore, are Muslims) especially violent, and deserving of unique disrespect? Through quote-mining the Quran and pointing to political groups like Hamas and Al Qaeda, who indeed profess religious motivations yet are blatantly driven in response to political oppression, Harris and his contemporaries suggest that the Middle East is wrought with such unmitigated dogmatic evil that they are perhaps beyond saving. Harris gives a surface level response to terroristic organizations: the Quran doesn't have an epistemological basis, "there's no reason to think it's true", therefore we just need to convince everyone of this fact, and what a safe world we'll then be living in.

He does not, however, give ample time to sending economic aid and building up the educational institutions--as is being done by organizations like The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan, which has established over 800 schools nationwide. Certainly, Harris would agree that to improve education would naturally lead to more critical thinking, and less dogmatic action. Yet he, and many of today's atheist authors, seem content to say that dogmatic thought will be liberated through spirited argument--a strategy which only seems effective between people who occupy the same economic class, namely one where they are comfortable enough that the philosophical question of whether or not god exists is worth pondering at all.

Social justice is achieved through an alliance between sister causes. Not only must the atheist movement begin to openly care about and fight against class inequality and poverty, but they must do so by breaking down the divides between themselves and religious communities that share the same goal. The Foundation Beyond Belief, in facilitating philanthropic giving for humanist organizations, already sponsors a Poverty and Health charity each quarter, a beneficiary category which almost always receives the most donations of each of those supported by FBB. Local humanist organizations such as Atheists Helping the Homeless in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas have also taken a lead in fighting economic inequality on the local level. But our national leaders continue to pour funds into self-righteous billboard campaigns rather than improving quality of life for those whose economic turmoil leaves them without access to the education that might improve their critical thought. And as long as that's the case, the rest of society will continue to look on atheists with scorn, and potentially fruitful relationships with the religious will be shattered.

Economic inequality is one of the most imminent issues facing Western society today. Any progressive movement that chooses to dismiss it is and will be rightfully dismissed themselves.