The white, male face of atheism… and how we can change that.

By: Adam Brown (Special thanks to Debbie Goddard from the Center for Inquiry for the research) and sections reprinted from Religion News Services author G. Jeffrey MacDonald

(See the whole Pew Study here and the story from the Religion News Service here)

You may not realize this, but white men dominate the United States. They make more money and have the best, most powerful positions in this country. Ok, you probably knew that. But, did you know that the atheist community is predominantly white and male too? Well, it is. The following research will show you this, talk about why this is the case, and discuss some ways we can make the atheism community more diverse (and why diversity is important).

This is the time to change. A new Gallup poll just came out saying something truly noteworthy. This poll has been asking people since 1957, “At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?” Well, in 1957, 69% said it was increasing its influence.

The number of Americans saying it is losing its influence has been as low as 14% (1957 as well), but is now back up to 70%! That’s right, nearly 3/4 of Americans recognize that the church is slipping away and doesn’t influence us as much as it used to. This is the time to promote secularism and humanist thought to a new generation of people… and to a very under served group. White men will keep leaving religion, we don’t have to worry about losing that demographic. What can we do to bring in the rest of our society. The following research and ideas will help us get that conversation started.

Surveys suggest most atheists are white men. A recent survey of 4,000 members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation found that 95 percent were white, and men comprised a majority.

Among U.S. nonbelievers, 72 percent are white and 60 percent are men, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey; the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Hispanics make up 11 percent, and African-Americans just 8 percent, of “unaffiliated” Americans.

“Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that,” said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. “We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place.”

Atheists are working to put a more diverse public face on their movement. A new group, Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October. Also last year, the Institute for Humanist Studies was born in Washington, D.C. with a goal of helping atheism become more diverse.

But diversity remains elusive. As of late December, American Atheist magazine hadn’t been able to find enough black atheist writers to fill a specialBlack History Month edition for February.

In another telling sign, the Council for Secular Humanism tried in vain to present a diverse array of speakers at its four-day October conference in Los Angeles. Most of the 300 attendees were white men, as were 23 of the 26 speakers.

“Considering the changing demographics of our country, we need to consider why our message is not resonating with Latinos, why it’s not resonating with people of color, and why it’s not resonating with women in the way that it could be,” said Debbie Goddard, director of African-Americans for Humanism.

Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Latinos also report affiliating with a religion at a similarly high rate of 85%; among the public overall, 83% are affiliated with a religion.

The Landscape Survey also finds that nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72%) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). Indeed, on this measure, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of Catholics (56% say religion is very important) and mainline Protestants (52%).

The following charts lay out some numbers that speak for themselves. Compare the overall population to that of African Americans.

So, what does this tell us? Well, first of all, the most atheistic groups are those that live on the coasts, are white, young, and educated. Ok, great. So, now that we have established that women and minorities are more religious than the overall population, we have to think how to change that. To do this, we must first hypothesize why. I have a few ideas. I will refer to them as the “excluded” which simply means women and minorities in one category. These are the people we need to reach out to and include into the atheism community to attain a social diversity.

I think the reason there aren’t more minorities equally represented in atheism is two fold: Community/Cultural Need and Education. I live near Kansas City. I have traveled to big cities around the world. When I travel, especially around the United States, I always see the same type of mix in poor urban areas. These large black churches are overflowing on Sunday mornings. It’s a big part of their weekly lives. It’s not just a religious center like it is for many white people, it’s a cultural center. It’s a place to come and reconnect with friends and family. It’s far less to do with the god inside the hymns they are singing and much more to do with the singing itself.

Religion is much more a part of the black and hispanic family unit than it is with white people. It’s much easier for us to abandon religion and not be entirely ostracized by friends and family. If you think coming out gay in a large, black family is tough… try and tell them you don’t believe in god!

It also has a lot to do with socioeconomic need. I grew up very poor. My mother often went to the church for assistance with rent, utilities, and food. The churches in the town I grew up in were the food pantries. Until I grew up and moved away, there wasn’t a bit of secular help you could get. Salvation Army and the church led groups were the only place to receive assistance. If you are in the religious community, it is easy to get help. If you are an outcast… good luck. This is true for the “excluded” too. They may not believe in god the way their families do, but they can’t risk being cutoff from the support (emotionally and financially) that the church and it’s associated charities provide.

[The "excluded"] tend to be more reluctant than whites to “come out of the closet” as non-believers, in part because religion and culture tend to be deeply intertwined in minority communities, according to Anthony Pinn, a black humanist and professor of religious studies at Rice University. “Within African-American communities, the question concerning black atheists is: have they surrendered their allegiance to the principles and ideas that helped us survive?” said Pinn, who is also research director for the Institute for Humanist Studies. The concern is that “the African-American atheists have surrendered some of what it means to be black and a survivor in the United States. They’ve lost touch with their tradition,” Pinn said.

Why is diversity a good thing?

Some people look at diversity and think it’s bad. Well, this, historically has never been the case. The more people you get into a movement and the more diverse those people are, the more united the front and the stronger the possibility that this “group” will become a majority in the society and blend into modern thought. This has happened in the womens’ rights movement, civil rights movement, and the ongoing gay rights movement. Don’t kid yourself… atheist are still an unacceptable minority to the majority of America. We have been ranked as the most disliked group in the country.

Making atheism more diverse is important on various levels, according to atheist organizers. For starters, Scott said gatherings are enriched when atheists have varied backgrounds and experiences to share.

“We need to be more vocal, in the atheist community at large and in our (black) community, to let others feel more comfortable in coming out,” said Ayanna Watson, a New York City lawyer and founder of Black Atheists of America.

She and Pinn hope more blacks will feel more comfortable “coming out” as atheists when they learn about black atheism’s roots in American history, through such figures as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass.

But, church attendance is down and our group is growing.

We see attendance in the youngest church-goers dropping even more. So what can we do to show these people that it’s ok to live without god? It’s three-fold.

1) EDUCATION

This is where is starts. It’s tough to be a believer in fairy tale gods when you have a strong basis of logic, reason, skepticism, and critical thinking. We are starting to see this. As more focus is given to the plight of inner city schools and immigrant families, schools in traditionally “bad” areas. Better education in general is good. But, we need to focus on teaching kids science and critical thinking (problem solving) skills. This kind of higher cognitive thought helps kids explore the problems with religious teachings and identify the fallacies that exist in the church. We have seen the other side fight to put “intelligent design” in schools and allow science teachers to teach alternatives theories to evolution. This kind of crap needs to stop. We have to put our foot down and recognize that the schools aren’t a place to debate policies… but to teach well documents, researched, accepted, peer reviewed answers – not “holy” rubbish.

This doesn’t end in the schools. Work with your kids. Let them have intellectual conversations with you. Answer their questions. Encourage learning. Praise the advancement of knowledge. Don’t just do this with your kids… so it with all kids. I’m not saying to go preach atheism on playgrounds (you’ll probably get arrested for that). But, it’s ok to make it know to kids around you that it’s safe to talk to you about anything. If you aren’t comfortable answering their questions, encourage them to seek out the answers from others – from multiple sources.

Lastly, and this is the big one – INTERNET ACCESS. Yes, there is a lot of shit on the internet. However, it’s also the largest compilation of human knowledge in the history of the world. And, it’s growing daily. Just having the web at their fingertips will allow them to seek out sites like AtheismResource.com and others like us. they will be able to see the info and make up their own minds. They will be able to seek out online support communities and real ones in their towns so they know they are not alone. This is huge. Fix the economy, schools, and internet in bad areas, and I guarantee you develop a whole new generation of freethinking, rational, skeptical, knowledgeable, proud atheists.

2) SECULAR CHARITIES

People have to know that help exists for them even if they don’t believe in god. Economics DO play a large role in what people believe in. We know from the statistics above, atheists tend to be more white than blacks and hispanics. Asians tend to be the highest in the non-believer category. Well, the same is true with income:

Average Yearly Income by Race: White (non-Hispanic) = 48,977  /  Black = 30,134  /  Hispanic = 34,241  /  Asian = 57,518
Now, I am not saying that it is a causation, just a correlation. But, until we do something to help the poorer parts of our country, they will continue to cling to their religion. Remember, these people vote too, and they likely vote based on religious convictions – something we don’t need anymore of in this country. There are a few great secular charities out there (we are starting one too, called Secular Santa). Most notably is the Foundation Beyond Belief. Groups like this provide a place for atheists, with means, to give their  money and know that it is helping people, without a religious message, and spreading the hope for a better future than humanism offers. We have to reach out to these underprivileged areas if we ever hope to increase diversity.
We don’t have to spread a message, as atheism provides no dogma. I’d like to think we can accomplish more good than believers… no string attached (see picture)

3) BEING PUBLIC IN OUR BELIEFS and TAKING UP AREAS OF CONCERN

Tens of millions of us worldwide are “good without god” – we need to not hide that fact. Meet-up groups have helped with this. We need more of them. As I have written in other articles (HERE), it isn’t the belief in god that make believers happier, it’s the act of going to church and meeting friends. We can do this too!

The debate is often about whether these groups should be all-inclusive or if some minority atheist groups should just be for black, latinos, etc. That way they aren’t missing out on the “community aspect” tat they lost with church. Well, I personally hate that idea. How can we preach a modern humanist standpoint to life if we still tell people that they need to be “separate but equal”. Hogwash. Bring everyone together. The Skeptic group I attend has one black guy… I wish we had more (and we will). We can do this by making a point to take up social issues, AS ATHEISTS, and making them a cause we all get behind. No, these aren’t taxes or which politician to vote for. These are things we all should be able to agree upon:

 Gender equality

 Poverty; economic issues

 Environmental issues

 Racism

 Education system

 Cultural issues

 Consumer awareness

These are things that make the world a better place. Fighting for equality and unbiased, science education will lead people away from religion, which IS unequal and biased – and the enemy of science.

Most importantly, and we have stressed this before… DON’T BE SILENT! It doesn’t help to be quiet. Objecting in silence never changed anything (attached article on the subject from one of our guest writers).

What should we do when we hear racist music?  Racist speech?  American, Iranian or Nazi nationalist speech?  Supremacist religious lyrics?  We can choose not to speak up to avoid offense, but there are cases where being silent is itself offensive.  Social pressure works to maintain the status quo.  The civil rights movement showed us that change won’t occur without confrontation.  The great achievement of Parks, King and others was that they confronted our culture nonviolently, even though they received violence in return.  They refused to be silent.  They made people uncomfortable, but these were people who shouldn’t have been comfortable in the first place.

Let’s clarify one thing:  I don’t want reverse discrimination.  I don’t want religious people to cower silently, either.  We simply want to make real the promise of ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’  Silent is not equal. Taking offense is social pressure that has evolved to keep others silent.  We don’t want to offend, but we can’t keep silent.  No one should.

If you keep your religious beliefs private, I won’t comment on them.  If you bring them up, put them on the money or insert them in the lyrics of songs, I will.  When ideas have social consequences, silence is complicity.

We need to speak out. We don’t have to be violent, just heard… and represented. We have to change the face of atheism, secularism, humanism (call it what you will) if we hope to ever change things like this country once did for women, African Americans, and the LGBT community. None of those categories are still perfectly equal to white, straight, Christian men, but it’s getting better.

We’ve seen the attitude towards atheism slowly shift, around the world, and it’s picking up pace in the United States. We just have to be more active. Passive protest won’t fix the problem. Groups like the American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation are leading the fight. Join up. Give money. Give time. Make a stand. Talk to minorities around you about what they believe and why. The face of atheism is changing, but not without your help.

  • Gerard26

    The pic of the man passing out bibles says it all for me the virus of religion has always, since it inception, targeted the poor and the powerless.Education is the first step in making one aware of the problem of superstitious beliefs.

  • gwen

    I am a middle aged African American, second generation atheist. My children are atheist as well. My parents gave me the tools to figure it out on my own, and I did the same for my children. Unfortunately, I am the only black atheist I know, other than my family members…

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  • Nixon is Lord

    The "Reverends" have got a better scam going than any pimp: not only are people forced to attend every week and give money, they get to add the burden of being "race traitors" to any who dare question their power.

  • mike

    Changing the face of atheism is going to be near impossible. White men are more genetically predisposed to be critical thinkers then anyone else-that leads to atheism ,metaphysical naturalism ect. It’s not a coincidence that Secularism, and Rationality stared in Europe, and those two phenomenons are really only found much in places where white men live. Because of biology, white men will continue to dominate the secular atheist world.

    • Nichy

      Wow, genetically predisposed to critical thinking, huh. So what you are saying is that a lighter skin color–via biology and evolution- gives one the ability to observe a situation and logically think for oneself. That’s not racist, that’s not racist at all!

      Yup, pretty sure you won over A LOT of ethnicities with that statement. Good job there, Mike!

      BTW, oh genetically predisposed critical thinker the word “then” is an adverb that used to show sequence after an action (I eat THEN go).

      You mean, “White men are more genetically predisposed to be critical thinkers THAN anyone else”

      …but then again, you’re white, you know everything.

  • kushku

    Gwen, I can completely relate to your predicament. My situation is actually more dire. I am a black atheist that happens to be from Kenya. Luckily for me, I live in the States where I can at least be safe, as opposed to living in Kenya and Africa as a whole where about 90% of the population is religious and a good number of that demographic is made up of religious extremists who can pose a real threat to the life of an atheist like myself. I feel sorry when I see Africans putting their whole lives on a non-existent god to solve their problems, but on the same token, I blame the wily pastors (snkae-oil salesmen) who take advantage of these people for their meagre finances…I have a son whom I will teach to stay away from religious nonsense at all costs because to be honest, religion, weak minds and poverty are synonimous.

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