Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Diverse Atheist Community

I have reached item 5 on Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy, which is a call for greater diversity in the secular movement.

It is quite obvious that the current rise of atheist activism has been dominated by white males. Faircloth's response to this is to call for an outreach program as a part of his strategy that aims to create a more diverse atheist community. He spoke about making an intentional effort to include women at a conference in May, 2011. He also reported that the Richard Dawkins foundation will seek to provide forums for Black atheists and Latino atheists among others.

There us something odd in this maneuver. I once saw Richard Dawkins give a speech in which he ridiculed the idea that science was like religion. If science were like religion, he argued, then we could put up a map of the world and note, "This part of the world is dominated by the view that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. While in this other region the dominant view is that they fell victim to a plague."

The point being that, while people draw their religious beliefs from their culture (which gives us regional-cultural differences in religious beliefs), scientists draw their beliefs from the evidence, which prevents it from being "regional".

Would it not be equally strange for impact theorists to have an "outreach program" to draw more women and minorities to the view that the dinosaurs died out as a result of an asteroid impact? This sounds a lot less like science, and a lot more like religion.

And since atheism is a hypothesis about what exists or does not exist, it would seem most appropriate to focus on simply presenting the evidence and letting that be the sole foundation for the beliefs.

However, even though science may be blind to matters of race and gender, scientists are not. Scientists are human. A scientist raised in a culture that dismisses the intellectual accomplishments of women can dismiss a woman's contribution to a scientific field out of hand before even viewing the evidence - or giving the evidence a slanted interpretation that conforms to his prejudice. A scientist raised in a racist culture can easily favor his white colleagues in terms of tenure, professional honors, and in awarding grants and funding.

As a counter to this, it is useful that a lot of scientific peer review is anonymous. This allows even a young child to submit a paper for review and get it accepted without prejudice against her age affecting the review decision. There is no need to include information about the age, race, or gender of the author - that is irrelevant to the quality of the argument. Yet, the scientific community recognizes that humans tend to let themselves be persuaded by these factors. It does not ignore prejudice. Instead, it designs procedures that reduce the effect of prejudice.

The atheist community is made up of humans, and also needs to adopt procedures that address these types of biases. One if the most abhorrent features of the atheist community to date has been a willingness at times to use sexual language - and, in particular, remarks of sexual violence - against female participants. This was exhibited recently in an incident on Reddit Atheism in which a female contributor was treated to sexual remarks, some of them of a violent nature, when she posted about a gift she had gotten from a religious family member. There is no dismissing this as "boys being boys" or even blaming our biological heritage. This behavior can be molded by social forces, and we have many and good reason to muster these social forces against this type of behavior. While desirism does not allow for moral absolutes, I can not think of a real-world situation that would provide an exception - and no reason why these types of comments can or should be tolerated.

However, bigotry neither begins nor ends with blatant acts or even threats of violence. By far its greatest expression is in small day-to-day decisions where it has its influence substantially without being noticed. It is found in the teacher who views a black student's paper as "just not being good enough", or in an employer who thinks that the woman in his office does not quite qualify for a raise. These decisions are not backed by explicit racism, "You do not get the job because you are black". They are backed by implicit racism, "I feel more comfortable with the white applicant than the black applicant because . . . um . . . because the job experience is more relevant. That's it. Yeah. There is just something about this applicant that I was not comfortable with. It has nothing at all to do with race. I despise racism."

I will confess that I am racist, I grew up in an environment that taught me to have a strong averse reaction to blacks. Intellectually, I know that this emotional reaction is not only irrational but one that good people would not have and people generally have reason to condemn. However, emotions do not respond to reason, and the emotions planted in childhood are not so easily changed.

This ties in to my condemnation of "under God" the Pledge and National Motto that identifies community membership with trust in God. These practices aim to generate in children a strong aversion to atheism that will carry them through adulthood and affect their behavior - independent of anything we may do to affect that person's beliefs. Bigotry, planted in a child, is very persistent.

This also ties in to the objections that I have made against basing moral conclusions on "feelings" - a common practice, even among atheists and secularists. "Feelings" do not provide a special mental access to moral truth. They provide a special mental access to one's current learned likes, dislikes, and prejudices.

These types of issues cannot be dealt with by ignoring race and gender. One must confront the psychological fact of casual and comfortable discrimination with a conscious and deliberate effort to correct for its influence. If you are driving a vehicle that pulls to the right, you are best advised not to ignore it, but to make a conscious effort to correct for it, if you want to actually reach your destination.

So, I agree with Faircloth that an outreach program should be a part of the strategy. Furthermore, I would like to see the atheist community make a conscious effort to acquire and apply a sound scientific understanding of these types of biases and their influences on behavior, as well as a sound scientific understanding of the types of social institutions that might eliminate or mitigate its influences.

It would be great if the secular and atheist community could tackle the fact of these biases in an objective, open, and straight-forward way, and provide a model for the rest of the world to avoid prejudices and responsibly handle those that were not successfully avoided.

1 comment:

Andy teh Nerd said...

Those day-to-day interactions which serve to reinforce discrimination are known as "microaggressions". There is a fascinating blog by the same name which collects such events.