I recently read an article about where a reporter sought clarification on some statements Dave Silverman made concerning his views on the secular movement in a previous piece published in The Tablet, written by Rachel Silberstein. Here is Silverman’s statement from the Silberstein article:
“Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews,” says Silverman, a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which “makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.”
When asked for clarification on the previous statement by Roy Speckhardt, Silverman stated:
“Some fight the battle to get humanism (or some other label) better recognized, but this battle is counterproductive, as there are very few people who know what humanism is — as opposed to atheism — and fighting that fight completely distracts from the equality fight, which is far more important. The humanism battle is nuanced; the atheism battle is basic and foundational.”
I take issue with these statements as a Black atheist who also identifies as a secular humanist. So I want to speak directly to Dave Silverman for a moment. Here goes:
Dear Dave Silverman,
I understand that you take some issue with the diversity of labels that are used within the secular movement. Somehow I am not surprised but i think you are missing a few things:
1. That people have the right to define themselves and label themselves as they wish.
2. That secularists and atheists have the right to decide which battles are worthy of their time.
3. Actually you and “new atheists” of your ilk make the movement smaller because it is the antagonism and narrow scope of that this movement exemplifies that makes many of people loathe to identify themselves as atheists.
And now, by narrowly defining the notion of equality and that ignores the lived realities of many Americans, I think you are inflicting further damage. Reading your statements this month offended me, as this month marks Black History Month. I was also offended because these words were uttered during a time in our country where it seems that open season has been declared on Black children. This is a time when the gains made during the civil rights movement are being eroded, when incarceration rates of Black and Latino communities are increasing at alarming rates, and overall systemic inequality seem to be growing. The fact that your notion of equality focuses narrowly on how much room you have to insult theists via billboards and television appearances is troubling to me and counterproductive. And it only further demonstrates how pervasive white supremacy is in this movement. The atheist movement often uses the language of post-racialism and color-blindness to avoid dealing with diversity in any substantive way. But none of this should surprise me since the only time that you are apt to consider this struggle is when you can appropriate it to insult religious adherence to the bible.
While it is certainly true that religious believers have a considerable amount of privilege in our country (as well as throughout the world) to frame the conversation in terms of equality is insensitive to all of the many minority groups that continue to struggle to have their humanity recognized. It is disrespectful to the memory of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, and the countless other men, women, and children who have lost their lives. It is disrespectful to the lived experiences of men, women, and children who are discriminated against in employment, housing, education, and the criminal justice system.
I wish equality for atheists was all there was left to fight for! I wish that STEM education and issues of church separation were the only battles left to fight. But I don’t have that luxury. I don’t have the level of privilege that would allow me to believe in that. I cannot be that oblivious.
That is why I could not disagree with you more on the issues of humanism. We need humanism more than ever, lives are depending on it. We need movements that recognize the value Black, Latino, and LGBT lives. We don’t need movements that appropriate our stories when it is convenient but are unwilling to stand up for us when it is inconvenient.
We don’t need movements that minimize the meaning of equality at a time where systemic inequality is growing. The battle against systemic inequality is “basic and foundational” and emphasizing radical humanist values with an emphasis on intersectionality could mean all the difference. Atheism only emphasizes non-belief in deities- humanism emphasizes the value of HUMAN LIFE.
I want to challenge you to rethink about what equality means and about which struggles are “basic and foundational” as homelessness and hunger rise and funding for social safety nets like SNAP are cut. Think about it as incarceration rates for Black and Latino communities rise independent of crime rates, as public schools close in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, as people struggle to sustain themselves on inadequate wages, etc.
James Baldwin once said, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
I say if the atheist movement cannot make us larger, freer, and more loving, I have no use for it. If it doesn’t value my life and the lives of other socioeconomic minorities, then it isn’t for me. I hope you will take this moment as a learning opportunity.