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Do Atheists Understand and Appreciate Black Bodies?

Trayvon Martin, 17, is dead. The bullet from the gun held by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, is the direct cause of this senseless death. But, the environment in which such madness could take place, an environment in which some easily assume Martin must have been the aggressor – because his black face was shrouded by a ‘hoodie’, and his body was located outside of what was considered its proper space – has been perfected over the course of centuries. A society in which Trayvon Martin could be perceived as out of place within his community takes its ideology and ethics from an old system of property, in which black bodies were to be monitored, rendered docile, and controlled. This old system worked based on the logic that black bodies were dangerous bodies and how they occupied space had to be watched closely. In a word, the system of slavery – the Atlantic slave trade – required a particular understanding of black bodies that continues to inform social interactions in the twenty-first century. Humans built the slave system, developed the anti-black racism policies that under gird so many contemporary interactions, and justified both. This reality – the senseless death of Martin and the larger ideology that informed it – one might think, would temper perceptions of human nature and potential. In light of this madness, on what is human optimism built?

Many atheists and theists share a hyper optimism regarding human progress. While each group points to the demise of the other as a key component in positive human development – both also presume proper posture toward the world, and use of a certain set of tools, to promote human advancement. For the theists this is all guided by the good intentions and assistance of a benevolent deity, and for the atheist it is premised on the reliability of scientific inquiry and reason.

While something of a hopeful outlook is a useful approach to ethical conduct, it should be guided and monitored by a sense of realism – recognition of persistent human misconduct and the resulting moral and ethical challenges. Theists can always haul such problems to the altar, pray about them, ritualize them, or chalk them up to mystery. For the atheists, the resolution isn’t so easily achieved. The difficulty for atheists isn’t mystical. It stems from a lack of acute attention to the cultural worlds in which we live, worlds that are not so easily unpacked and addressed through appeal to science and logic. Cultural signs and symbols, cultural framings of life and life meaning are not necessarily guided by scientific method and do not necessary respond to reason. Instead they function by means of both logic and illogic. Mindful of this, a few questions should be asked: what is a proper atheistic response to moral failure? What is the proper ethical posture toward human problems that seem to defy reason and logic? And, in light of recent developments, do atheists understand and care about black bodies?

The tenacious nature of these questions holds relevance in that they bind together history and contemporary developments. Early moral failures shadow recent and tragic events. What I have in mind is enslavement of Africans and the socio-political advances the system of slavery meant for peoples of European descent. And, this framing of black bodies buttresses the murder of Trayvon Martin, in Florida. Put differently, to understand situations such as the killing of Martin, one must understand the socio-political, economic, and cultural legacy of the slave trade. The relevance of atheism in a diverse world depends on its ability to acknowledge and tackle such perplexing problems.

As the descendent of enslaved Africans brought to the American hemisphere, I have in mind something much larger than an individualization of this transnational problem. I see this as an educable moment – an opportunity to think deeply about the underlying issues girding a long debate concerning some very important things such as: (1) the nature of privilege within environments of discrimination; (2) the limits of individual accountability within global systems; (3) the measure of collective obligation for redress of wrongs done; (4) the disregard of black bodies made possible through these other issues. And, turning back to the context of atheism, these issues point to a strong need for atheists to develop new frameworks for ethical thinking and praxis in often-absurd cultural worlds.

A Bit of Context

So much of the look, the tone and texture, the dynamics of human relationships is premised on the mechanics, policies, and infrastructures created to maintain a lucrative trade in human flesh. The more graphic signs of this situation on both sides of the Atlantic have faded with time, and the gains made by means of this extreme servitude have been filtered through economic structures that no longer bare the explicit language and signs of free black labor. As a result there is a type of forgetfulness, or a systemic failure to recognize the persistent damage to the descendants of enslaved Africans done even within the contemporary moment. The Atlantic slave trade gave way to more nuanced forms of discrimination meant to safeguard white supremacy and the socio-political, economic, and cultural benefits of said supremacy. While the look of these alternate mechanisms for maintaining the status quo differ from country to country, under girding each former slave holding country’s strategies has been a discourse of “otherness” that caste those of African descent as different, insignificant, and unworthy of full participation in the life (and benefits) of that nation. The signs of this strategy are evident: in locations on both sides of the Atlantic there have been violent and ritualized ways to keep people of African descent on the margins of collective life – lynching in the United States is one example, the murder of Martin is another.

The benefits of race-based discrimination are too great to surrender without an aggressive effort to maintain them. Yet, these more graphic models of social control were matched by more subtly presented efforts – e.g., depictions of people of African descent as lacking aesthetic value; charges that black men are aggressive and a threat to the security of society (the perception of Trayvon Martin?); black women are sexually available; people of African descent are genetically inferior, and so on. The rationale for this process became normalized, and became a dimension of public and private discourse that no longer required direct articulation of white supremacy in order to justify the practices meant to safeguard inequality. Violence served as a tool of re-enforcement, a way to periodically fine tune the system of discrimination by making certain the bodies (and desires) of people of African descent remained consistent with the needs of the dominant population. Although no longer requiring direct appeal, these patterns of discrimination and their justifications framed the dynamics of life – offered restrictions on what the descents of slaves could and could not do, where they could be and where they should not be, and so on. This was understood to be correct and reasonable in that their inferior position was assumed and the consequences of inherent difference understood as negative. And so, it became a part of the meta-narrative of national (international?) existence. The genius of this discrimination is the lifting of any type of moral burden and the maintenance of privileges for those of European descent that need not be spoken but are acted out in a variety of ways. Soft forms of privilege, certain assumptions that are made concerning human worth and opportunities that are based on anti-black racism forged as part of the rationale for the slave system, continue to disadvantage certain populations. Example of the success of certain persons of African descent – keen examples such as President Obama – do not challenge this system of discrimination and white privilege, but instead re-enforces it. The system requires some “exceptions” to the rule in order to validate the system as equal and advancement available to any who are willing to play by the rules and work hard. Some have seen through this system, found its cracks, and are exposing it.

Challenging the Status Quo: Target One – Religion

At least in indirect ways, humanist and atheist movements have engaged the dynamics of discrimination (as awkward as they can be with respect to issues of diversity) with soft references to the type of religion-sanctioned trauma represented by the Atlantic slave trade. This critique includes, but extends beyond, the effort of religious organizations to build worlds based on superstition illusions, and poor reasoning. The indictment also includes exposure of religion’s intimate links to the most graphic atrocities in human history – including providing theological grounding and sanction for slavery. The slave trade needed a theological and philosophical rationale that could mask a brutality and economic agenda. And, drawing from the biblical text – things such as the Book of Genesis curse on Ham (actually on his son, Canaan) by means of which his descendants were divinely appointed servants through all generations – the subjugation of Africans was read into salvation history. Theists followed this with appeals to the New Testament, where Paul encourages a slave to return to his servitude. It doesn’t take much investigating to know the Bible does not condemn slavery. Instead, it simply presents a narrative concerning who can be enslaved rightly. Negative color symbolism in the Bible (i.e., white as “pure” and “good”, and black as “evil” and “bad”) was highlighted and mapped on black bodies, rendering those bodies problematic and in need of control. In addition to this theologizing of enslavement, it was also the case that religious outfits used the rhetoric of conversation to cover economic and political desire: they would enslave Africans but reward them with spiritual (but not physical!) freedom. Churches owned slaves, preachers owned slaves, and both comforted traders with affirmations that God was on their side and favored them over their African laborers. This is all true, and there isn’t much new in making this important critique.

Yet, there is a general logic of difference as negative that under girds theism in more general terms. That is to say, outside the trail of documents, sermons, pronouncements and physical involvement on the part of religious organizations in the slave trade, theism in general – not just Christianity – tends to establish an “in” group and an “out” group. The “in” group is favored by God/gods, and those in the other group exist outside the safety of divine favor. Here’s the rub: the “in” group makes use of its religious and theological lexicon to construct justifications for the marginalization and at times brutalization of outsiders. So beyond the example of the African slave trade, the Holocaust, etc., there is an inherent logic within theism making possible (when it doesn’t actively promote) difference as a negative addressed through dehumanization and destruction. Atheists are correct to point out the destructive qualities of religion – its unavoidable failures. But, all too often it is assumed this critique is the end of the obligation to the production of a transformed society.

Challenging the Status Quo: Target Two – Non-theist Introspection

Although non-theists of all sorts are free from participation in this particular type of justification for violence and discrimination, we, non-theists, had better exercise a modicum of humility in that one need not have God or gods in order to sanction oppression. The god-less have played a role in the fostering of dehumanizing practices and policies. This, in the long run, is not a matter of particular ideological drive or theological orientation, but rather dehumanization stems from deeply human drives and desires. And, these are just as easily sanctioned through manipulations of reason and science – i.e., phrenology – as they are by divine (but illusionary) forces.

There is enough blame to go around; accountability and responsibility for the cultural worlds in which we live is not restricted to particular communities of thought. It is safe to assert the infrastructure of enslavement as well the benefits of this perpetual servitude were supported by theists and non-theists alike – just as both worked to end this tragic period of human history. If non-theists are to claim Thomas Jefferson as proponent of their more secular inclinations, his participation in the dehumanization of Africans must also be noted.

Where does this leave us? Well, shouting “I am not religious!” does little to address the ethical and moral obligations facing us all; and, it does little to destroy the delusional perspectives of the traditionally religious. Theistic or not – with respect to ethics and morals – it is a distinction without a difference.

Why do I say this? First, atheists and humanists tend to be rather passive with respect to the defining of certain terms, like religion. Too quickly, atheists surrender vocabulary such as “religion” to the theists – as if the idea of “binding together” can only serve as a useful component of a theistic lexicon, and a fundamentalist theism at that. I am one who argues religion can be understood as a descriptive term meant to capture the human push to make life meaning-full. That is to say, it is a hermeneutic by means of which human experience (just mundane human experience) is mined for what it says about our response to the deepest existential and ontological challenges we face. There is no requirement of God or gods in this definition and it is just as plausible as any other. Religion need not be sui generis; it can easily and simply serve as a way of naming human experience – not sacred experience, but simply human experience that revolves around our effort to wrestle with the significant questions of our existence on planet earth.

Does this mean atheists must, or even should, understand themselves as “religious”? No. I am simply saying atheists should be more intentional regarding the development of their lexicon. Yet, my claim will disturb many of my atheist and humanist friends. I’ve heard the laments and complaints before. Nonetheless, I insist such thinking is not pandering to theists; it is not conformist; nor is it a matter of accommodation. Rather, it is an effort to provide tropes or signifiers that help capture the human process of living within the context of human history – nothing supernatural or mystical about this(a). We should not assume that theists are the only ones who get to define and own terminology. In fact, a demand to re-think religious vocabulary might serve to damage some of the assumed integrity of theistic worldviews by removing the illusory cosmic underpinning of their lexicon.

Moral obligation to address wrongs of the past is paramount and incumbent upon all. The demand for an ethical posture toward the world and corresponding activity is also incumbent on all. With respect to the continuing trauma resulting for centuries of slavery, this requires something nations have been reluctant to provide. Attacks on the logic of discrimination have over the course of a good number of years been matched by demands for an apology for slavery and for reparations. An apology, and payment…yes.

As Robert Beckford points out in his brilliant BBC documentary titled “The Empire Pays Back,” (2006), the economic gains of slavery over the course of centuries amounts to trillions of pounds; and, the situation is not dissimilar in the United States. An apology has been difficult to come by in both countries, and reparations have been an even more charged and divisive topic. Yet, neither is foreign; nations have apologized for moral failures and unforgivable violence such as the Holocaust and the internment camps in the United States. These apologies have been matched in many cases with economic resource meant to make up some of the gap in healthy life options and stable infrastructures forced by violence and death encountered. Why not the same for people of African descent? This is a charged question, and it is a good question. Some argue the reluctance to apologies and provide financial recompense stems from the types of memory loss noted above: because it was so long ago, how do we know who has benefited? Why should those who didn’t directly enslave anyone loose out on resource (and privileges) because of the sins of others? And, how would money even be distributed to the descents of slaves?

Richard Dawkins was confronted, the ethical character of his atheism challenged in light of the manner in which some of his ancestors forged wealth through participation in the Atlantic slave trade. My goal here is not a defense of Dawkins on this issue, in fact much about the critique of Dawkins’ family will have been forgotten by the time this is posted. More to the point, such a defense will do little to foreground a real reckoning with the deep and more compelling problems associated with the ongoing legacy of economic gain and political advantage built on dehumanization, and the way in which this legacy allows for the contemporary disregard of black bodies.

The rather clumsy challenge of Dawkins by that reporter and his response to the report provide an opportunity to reflect on an issue with enduring impact: Do I believe an apology and financial compensation are required? Yes. An apology speaks to moral centering, recognition of humanity violated, and the making visible of what has been hidden. Only in this way can productive conversation take place. Only in this way – through substantive apology – can a nation’s moral compass be reset in ways that make real its rhetoric of democracy and citizenship.

An apology is the moral dimension of the dilemma, but that alone is insufficient. It should be matched by the sharing of resources that allow for the development of new infrastructures providing opportunities and points of access for those who’ve been disadvantaged. Here’s my angle on this: I think individuals are accountable for acknowledging and troubling privileges connected to race-based discrimination (i.e., the residue of the slave system). In addition, individuals should work to destroy the mechanism of race-based advantages that disadvantage so many, and this can be done through moral and ethical commitment to justice work.

In addition to individuals, there are systemic dimensions of the problem that must be addressed. And systemic problems require systemic solutions. So, rather then simply attacking individuals, I prefer – as Beckford does in his documentary – to target the national and transnational corporations and corporate interests that house the vast majority of the wealth tainted with the blood of Africans. While individuals benefited to differing degrees – as the writer tried in a rather disingenuous way to point out with Richard Dawkins – the vast majority of this wealth is tied to the holdings of trans-Atlantic economy players such banks, insurance companies, and so on. The legacy of the slave trade is most graphic on the level of the collective. To simply target individuals might provide emotional release, a psychic corrective; but there are limited benefits to this. Again, this is not to demise the micro-signs of slave-based wealth. Individuals are accountable, as I’ve noted above. However, it is important to also recognize that slavery was a national and transnational problem and the full and sustained resolution must be mindful of this fact.

To carry this forward, reparations should be arranged not in terms of individual payments, but instead through the development of institutions, programs, and other structures offering assistance with the correcting of disadvantages enslavement produced over centuries. Think in terms of educational opportunities, job training and employment programs, political power through paid lobbyists, archives, museums and galleries that preserve and house the cultural production of people of African descent, resources to fight the “New Jim Crow” as Michael Alexander names the racial biased criminal “justice” system, media outlets to advance the interests of people of African descent within popular imagination, and so on. These collective resources would then be available to descents of slaves based on need and desire. Who pays for this? The answer: transnational corporations of all sorts and governments based on profits for the former and dedicated budget lines (and policies) for the latter.

Issues of apologies and monetary recompense aside, debates regarding the Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary implications point out other flaws. For instance, the lack of critical thinking skills, and a reluctance to know and process history, have done deep damage. Generations continue to emerge that think and behave without clear understandings of context, without even an interest in investigation and rigorous debate. A few sound bites, a few catch phrases – that’s it. Here’s the issue: rather than lamenting or mocking this ignorance; atheists of all sorts might spend more time developing creative strategies that address such shortcomings. This, of course, requires more than tirades against ignorant theists and destructive religions. Deconstruction of flawed patterns of thought is vital, but this must be matched by constructive efforts beyond the “usual suspects.”

The Implications

Atheists need to branch out beyond insulated conversations at private meetings and gatherings. Why not, for example, work with some of the students in some of the more challenged grade schools and high schools? Sponsor activities that foster critical thinking skills, effective communication strategies, and models of leadership that are organic? Encourage the development of critical thinkers who can interrogate and unpack superstitions of all sorts – whether they are religious, political, economic, or social? This approach may not receive the same media attention as attacks on the religious, but its impact is long term because it nurtures citizens who have the skills necessary to cut through the crap of our cultural worlds. I suggest this approach of working backward and advancing critical thinking skills over mere deconstruction of traditional religion because religion and its theological underpinning mutates, morphs and transforms. This is certainly one way to think about the growth in the Prosperity Gospel and the mega-churches associated with it. Do these really indicate the vulnerability (let alone death) of “religion”?

If your organizations and groups are already doing this sort of work, good for you. But until this is a national and transitional strategy understood as basic to secular core values, the impact will be minimal.

Doing the work I’m proposing means moving beyond the already “converted.” The effort isn’t necessarily to convert these young people to atheism or humanism – but simply to promote the skills necessary to think for themselves in light of good information. This involves strategies that touch this population in creative and imaginative ways – something along the lines of “engaged learning” strategies through multiple outlets of application and practice. Who knows, this approach might also become a way to address issues of diversity within non-theistic movements and organizations.

I want to believe the development of engaged and critical thinkers, who have the communication skills and innovative processes of application, is more important than limited and limiting commitment to the destruction of religion.

Controlling of theistic religion might be aided through our traditional means of approach – intellectual critique, practical activism, public policy debate and lobby. However, to be really effective requires the participation of more than just public non-theists (e.g., atheists, humanists, and so on). It requires an informed citizenry, and we produce this – again – through more constructive efforts to enhance critical thinking skills, effective communication strategies and innovative models of leadership within populations least likely to attend our rallies, conferences and conventions – grade school children, high school children…. young people. That is to say, apply our values and offer our insights in a broad manner by working to enhance the skills necessary to interrogate theological and ideological assumptions, to question sacred pronouncements in light of lived circumstances and felt human need. Critiquing fundamentalism in any of its incarnations and promoting models of collective living that nurture our best attributes and stifle our most harmful tendencies. Making progress on this front would be a victory.

Doing this work doesn’t necessitate a pledge of atheism, but instead demands the type of good thinking hygiene and perspective we might be well positioned to provide. In a word, we might want to focus more aggressively on cutting theism off at its source, deny it vulnerable minds upon which to feed, and do so by fostering generations with the capacity for clear and reasonable thought. This isn’t the same direct attack on religious nonsense. Theists have come to expect that, but instead it stems the tide of adherents through organized efforts by humanism informed critical thinking skills, effective communication techniques, and innovative models of application aimed at addressing pressing issues and problems – e.g., theism’s influence on public discourse – of our day.

Over time we develop a citizenry with the capacity to think, to challenge, to ask questions – and in this way to appreciate the importance attached to creating reasonable societies. And, whether or not these free thinkers label themselves atheists, or humanists, or not, they have the capacity to serve as allies and they have the skills necessary to limit the unreasonable assertion of theistic religion perspective and opinions in the public arena. And they do so not necessarily because they claim the label of atheist or humanist, but because limiting the impact of religion on public life, and development of a more secular society makes good sense. This development of an informed and thinking citizenry might not put an end to senseless murder, to disregard for the well being of “others,” but it does provide a way of interrogating and hopefully controlling and deconstructing our worst, human inclinations. Progress on this front – dismantling the structures and ideologies that nurture dehumanization – would be a fitting response by atheists to the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the many other tragic acts of violence against black bodies.

(a) I develop this idea more fully in: Pinn, African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod (Palgrave, 2004) and The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford, 2012). While the historical and cultural context for these texts are clearly African American, the basic principles outlined are easily relevant to other communities as well.

Anthony B. Pinn is
Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities (Rice University)
Director of Research, The Institute for Humanist Studies (Washington, DC)



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