Impact Through Education: Yes, the Atheist Movement Should Care About Poverty
Last week I read that Black Skeptics Los Angeles is raising money for new First in the Family Humanist Scholarships, designated for “college-bound Los Angeles Unified School District students in South Los Angeles. Preference will be given to students who are in foster care, homeless, undocumented and/or LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning). Students must have a record of service and participation in school and/or community-based organizations.”
I really liked the idea, so I helped get the word out online. A couple days later I looked at the ChipIn widget and was surprised to see very few new contributions, so I wondered how else I could help…until I realized that I now have for-real “disposable income” (like I just throw it away, ha!) and can choose to donate to charitable causes, something I previously didn’t feel comfortable doing due to crushing debt from years as a college student without medical insurance.
So I popped $25 towards the scholarships as the ninth contributor and posted something about the scholarship fund to Facebook and Twitter again. I was happy to see several people with sizable followings retweet my tweet—yay! But when I checked for new donations the next day, there were only three new contributors. Boooo. I’m glad to see that the fund is now up to $1372.88 and 16 total contributors after a blog boost from Crommunist, who wrote:
As a big proponent of education as a means of not only breaking the cycle of poverty, but as a way of better understanding the world around us, I am excited that this idea is moving forward.
(By the way: I’ve only ever donated money to something maybe four times in my life, unless you count buying Girl Scout Cookies, in which case it’s closer to a dozen times. I have lots of experience donating my time and energy as a volunteer, but I never thought it wise to give money when I was struggling with mountains of school debt. Even though I only donated $25 this time—hey, I’m new at this!—it felt awesome to give to others. I will do it again! Anyway, to go on…)
Over the weekend, a Google alert pointed me to a Huffington Post piece titled “The New Atheist Movement Should Care About Poverty.” Author Walker Bristol is a Tufts University student whom I’d gotten in touch with online after seeing his thoughtful response to a provocative and substantive (i.e., worthwhile and quite long) article in Counterpunch called “Atheism and the Class Problem.” Described on HuffPo as an “Atheist Interfaith Activist,” Walker is president of the Tufts Freethought Society, works with the Foundation Beyond Belief as director of communications, and contributes to interfaith wunderkind Chris Stedman’s NonProphet Status blog, “a forum for a compassionate and measured alternative to the contemporary atheist narrative, focused on sharing stories of interfaith cooperation and treating topics in social justice, science, and philosophy with nuance.”
My friend Stedman knows that I’m not as fluffy as he is about religion and I’m less kumbaya about interfaith work. I figured I’m probably more “angry-atheist” than Walker is, so I started reading the article with a critical eye. However, I found myself agreeing with several of his ideas. Parts of the article are quoted below, but please do go read the whole thing. (Note: emphasis is my own.)
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.”
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.
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…[Sikivu] 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 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…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.
[O]ur 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.
So there’s a lot that can be said, and I’m interested to hear feedback from commenters here. I do think that some parts of the article give a limited picture: for example, well-executed billboard campaigns attract new members and new funding, both necessary for secular and atheist organizations to advance their missions. But Walker’s piece is in the style of a persuasive essay, written with limited space, and I think his main idea is a good one. I want to close by highlighting an important theme discussed by both Walker and Crommunist:
Education, education, education.
It’s because I believe in the transformative power of education that I donated money to the Black Skeptics Los Angeles scholarship fund. It’s because I have some small idea of the sacrifices my parents made to send my siblings and me to private school—instead of to the low-performing and often violent local public schools—that I want to see the movement do more than pay lip service to the value of education. I’ve talked about this before, but I am frustrated that we-the-movement only seem to get involved with public education when a teacher puts Bible quotes on the walls of her classroom, when a football coach leads his high school team in prayer, when a science teacher spends time promoting intelligent design, when an administration prevents a student from starting an atheist club, or when a high school graduation is scheduled to take place in a church. Then we swoop in with our science advocates and Wall of Separation to make everything right…but don’t seem to worry about the fact that the high school’s graduation rate might be less than 50% and the shared science textbooks are older than the students.
Unless we address the classism and broaden the elitist culture of the atheist movement, the underprivileged students in the Philadelphia public school classrooms that I’m familiar with and in the South Los Angeles classrooms that Sikivu Hutchinson works in will continue to be marginalized and will never have access to the “enlightened” educational opportunities that the movement too often takes for granted.
Some would say it’s not the movement’s responsibility to address poverty and public education. I disagree. This is a movement; we want the world to be a better place than it is now. We want to reduce suffering and foster a just society. If we agree there’s no cosmic justice system and there’s no reward for suffering after we die, we need to effect change here, now, in this life, in this world, for as many people as we can reach. Education is key for change to occur.
Note: I honestly think it would be more appropriate to describe these as the goals of the humanist movement, rather than the atheist movement, although there’s significant overlap. There’s also overlap with the skeptical movement, and some of the goals are the same. I think the points above can still be considered in these other contexts.