The Trouble with Those Atheists

atheists in education

Yvonne Hutchinson teaching

Until it was revived by the activist-minded Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP was widely viewed as a staid throwback coasting on the glory of the civil rights movement. Under Jealous’ leadership, the organization set out to demonstrate its political relevance, ramping up campaigns around mass incarceration, the death penalty, voter suppression and marriage equality. Predictably, these initiatives often drew on its strong ties to the African American faith community.

A few months ago, I attended a local NAACP community service awards lunch where these ties were on vivid display. My mother, activist-educator Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, was among the recipients. The honorees read like a roll call of educated, accomplished black America—a pioneering judge who is the granddaughter of slaves, an esteemed choreographer who’d been turned down for admission to UCLA, an activist teacher whose groundbreaking pedagogy challenged institutional racism and discrimination in Los Angeles public schools.

Most of the women who spoke at the event offered moving counter-narratives to the marginalization of the “everyday/ordinary” activism of women of color. Each told tales of low expectations fiercely debunked. Coming on the heels of a Women’s History seminar I’d conducted with my students, the lunch was a welcome antidote to mainstream fixation on Rosa Parks as the only example of black feminist activism.

Nonetheless, my mother appeared to be the only humanist being honored, as many recipients gushed about god and “his” guidance. Some elicited rapturous call and response “amens” and “that’s rights” with every reference to the Lord’s supposedly divine inspiration. Several of the women’s biographies cited deep involvement in their churches.

World history seminar attendees.

World history seminar attendees.

A recurring theme was the paramount importance of education. Through their church leadership these primarily Baby Boomer generation women supported youth groups, spotlighted juvenile justice issues, provided scholarship assistance, spearheaded tutoring programs, developed college financial aid resources, mentored foster care youth and gave legal aid counseling.

The performance of religious fervor reconfirmed what I’d already known about black women’s organizing—namely, that social justice through faith-based communities was still the foundation for not just activism, but identity, self-affirmation and self-determination.

In an article on black non-believers in Orlando, Florida, the white head of an atheist organization expressed surprise that black atheists didn’t embrace his organization with open arms. For white folk, centuries of racial apartheid, de facto segregation, and white supremacy in education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system are a source of “invisible” power, privilege, advantage and identity.

Nonetheless, many white atheists believe non-believers of color should just be able to roll in any environment, regardless of whether the local research university employs more black service workers than it enrolls black students or whether white families have fled public schools for elite charters and private academies.

The pervasiveness of white supremacy in every institution of American economic and social organization is a blind spot for white organizations precisely because they rely on this regime of power and control for the illusion of universality. As Toni Morrison remarked in her book Whiteness and the Literary Imagination “Statements insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity are themselves full of meaning. The world does not become raceless or…unracialized by assertion.”

Similarly, white claims about embracing colorblindness or believing “everyone should be equal” in the face of the New Jim Crow of “invisible” segregation does not translate into atheist or humanist solidarity. As I argue in my books,  Moral Combat and Godless Americana, the ardent expressions of religious allegiance that I observed at the NAACP lunch are a byproduct of structural racism. Ultimately, they exemplify the supreme value of heritage in the face of apartheid conditions in which the racial wealth gap translates into real benefits for whites; especially in the field of education.

For example, although many white atheists profess a commitment to “science and reason,” there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color. In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, white atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.

In my article “The War on Black Children“, I detail how the lack of access to Advanced Placement classes (through unofficial tracking policies, racial stereotyping and unavailable courses) undermines African American college preparedness in STEM fields. Contrary to popular belief, many black religious organizations and churches support higher education initiatives such as STEM pipelining and scholarship programs. In collaboration with other community-based organizations, large congregations may provide mentoring programs and college travel funds while actively recruiting African American youth for college enrichment programs.

But rather than coalition build with STEM organizations and activists of color to seriously address the race/gender “opportunity gap” in the STEM fields atheist organizations are content to posture about the need for “science and reason” to elite white audiences.

sikivu-hutchinson-175Recognizing the dire need for STEM pipelining instead of prison pipelining, the Women’s Leadership ProjectBlack Skeptics Los Angeles and Wisdom from the Field are partnering with African American STEM professionals at the California Science Center and Drew University for a series of South L.A. high school panels on debunking STEM stereotypes, STEM mentoring, college preparation, and navigating racism, sexism and homophobia in STEM academia. For further information, contact

Sikivu Hutchinson
Black FemLens

Monday, 30 October 2013


  1. AudioSuede says

    As a humanist, I think you’re hanging a lot of the blame on atheist organizations for not devoting more energy to a problem that is obviously very important to you. But consider your STEM pipelining example: I, for one, have never even heard of this problem (and, to be honest, after reading your article, I still don’t understand what it is, or what STEM stands for, as it seems a very specific, opaque sort of discussion that you have to be involved with already to grasp).

    The problem is outreach and dialogue. If atheist groups are failing to address an issue of importance to potential members, especially members of often under-represented groups like African Americans and other racial minorities, the problem might not be that they’re not interested in racial issues or in investing in education, but simply that they’re so focused on advocating for their own unheard voices in politics that they simply aren’t aware of their blind spot. Talking about it helps.

    Also, it should be noted that atheist groups aren’t religions or churches; most of them are either advocacy organizations or meetups. They don’t have a weekly worship meeting to pass a plate around, and they don’t have a centralized church with a holy leader and a structure in place to look around and say, “We have money to launch _____ initiative for charity.” Atheist groups are fighting to have their say in the public forum because we’re outnumbered by churches with vastly more money and influence. To say that the reason non-white atheists don’t actively support atheist groups because they don’t put in money to advocate for education or similar projects seems disingenuous, and it seems like the expectations of what these organizations are in place to do is wrong.

    But again, rather than assigning the blame on atheists, the less wealthy, less established, less powerful religious minority, for not doing more to address issues which are outside of their purview, there should be a greater attempt from both sides to conduct a dialogue. It’s not like atheists don’t want more members, regardless of race, and it’s not like they don’t care about racial inequality. And it’s also not like there aren’t any African American atheists, but clearly there is a lot of pressure within the culture to maintain the religious status quo. Your story about your mother being honored and being the only humanist there rings true for a lot of people. Presenting an openness for dialogue to allow atheists of color to express themselves seems like a much more productive and useful idea than to dismiss “white atheists” out of hand for not being more representative of the African American community despite their efforts to reach out, as it seems like you’re doing in this article.


  1. […] The Trouble with Those Atheists (LA Progressive) Under Benjamin Jealous’ leadership, the NAACP set out to demonstrate its political relevance, ramping up campaigns around mass incarceration, the death penalty, voter suppression and marriage equality. Predictably, these initiatives often drew on its strong ties to the African American faith community. […]

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