Feminism, Race, and Religion: An Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson by Kile Jones


While black Churches are burning, and black children are being gunned down by police, I felt it important to speak with someone who is involved in raising awareness on the role of racism and cultural imperialism in American society. I am honored to present to you all, Sikivu Hutchinson.

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As a woman of color, and an atheist, how do you respond to the invocation of God in the Charleston tragedy?

It frustrates me but the invocation of God in crisis is a significant part of African American cultural and social history. As I wrote recently in an article entitled “Pushing Back on ‘God’ in Charleston”: “Radical black humanists, most notably Frederick Douglass and A. Philip Randolph, have challenged black religiosity under slavery while acknowledging the crucial role activist churches played in black self-determination.

Randolph’s critique of organized religion and the god concept was always coupled with a critique of capital and the imperialist occupation of black bodies and African countries. Churches dominated black communities because of the nexus of racial apartheid and capitalism.”

Organized religion and God belief continue to dominate African American communities because of these legacies. That said, clearly no loving god would allow a twenty six year-old in the prime of his life to be cut down in cold blood, nor abide by a five year-old having to play dead to avoid being murdered. And no moral god would demand forgiveness for a crime for which there has never—since the first African was stolen, chained, exploited and “imported”—been any reparations.

How do you view the role of faith and Church participation in the lives of women of color? What positives and negatives do you see?

Dehumanized and demeaned as hyper-sexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas, black women have always been considered less human, less female, and less moral than “good” Christian white women—the gold standard for femininity, morality and Eurocentric beauty ideals. Thus, being tacitly religious is almost a litmus test for being a “good” morally upright black woman. In African American communities many of the rituals of female caregiving—i.e., cooking, socializing children, being the “rock” of the family, attending to holidays, etc.—invariably revolve around or evoke faith and religiosity. Buck these conventions and you’re subversive; challenge them publicly and you’re a race traitor and gender apostate.

On the other hand, because of the absence of secular or civic alternatives in communities of color, churches afford black women with social, cultural and professional networks that enable them to gain leverage in their communities. A few years ago I went to a NAACP awards ceremony where virtually every black woman honoree spoke of doing advocacy work through their churches. Many of these 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. This 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.

What ways do you think atheist and secular groups can better address racism and sexism in the modern world?

Progressive atheist, humanist and secular organization need to proactively and visibly mobilize around issues that go far beyond the usual church/state separation and “science and reason” agenda. When it comes to communities of color, far too often we see the big secular organizations pay lip service to “diversity” (i.e., spotlighting a few individual atheists of color and supporting the creation of safe spaces for atheists of color as their “diversity” agenda) while failing to grasp how religion thrives through structural inequities vis-à-vis race, class, gender and economic apartheid.

For example, you can’t fight for economic justice in communities of color without advocating for reproductive justice, unrestricted abortion rights and access to universal health care. You can’t preach “equality” of genders without redressing the heterosexist lack of representation of queer and trans people of color in K-12 curricula. You can’t advocate for LGBTQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) enfranchisement without confronting all of the mechanisms that criminalize queer and trans youth of color and make them at greater risk for being incarcerated, placed in foster care and/or becoming homeless. Coalitions that form around these intersectional issues should be actively promoted—especially those that cultivate ties with progressive believers and non-atheist secular community-based organizations. Further, non-believers who write about and organize around these issues should be tapped for leadership positions in national humanist and atheist organizations.

Your book “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” addresses race and the Rockwell-esque culture of white America. Do you see a rupture in non-believers that causes them to reconsider some implicit and inherited racism they may have previously been unaware of?

There are some glimmers here and there. Recently the American Humanist Association has made an effort to be more conscious of institutional racism in the secular movement and in mainstream society. There are a few white allies (Greta Christina, Richard Carrier, Rebecca Watson, Chris Stedman, James Croft and others) who try and raise consciousness about white privilege and racial politics in their writings and advocacy. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement Foundation Beyond Belief is hosting a July conference on humanism and racial politics. However, these efforts are few and far between and won’t have any lasting impact unless white atheist/humanist organizations put some programmatic and organizing muscle behind these forays.

What might you say to liberal women of faith who want to better understand humanists like yourself?

Most women of color believers have simply never met an open humanist/atheist woman of color. Yet secular and freethought traditions do exist among African American women, most notably in the literature and critical theory of major thinkers and novelists like Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Walker. These are all women who either overtly identified as feminist/womanist and/or have contributed significantly to articulating black women’s subjectivity via intersectional critiques of race, gender, class and sexual oppression. While African American women humanists actively critique organized religion and its gender/sexuality binaries, these views are often shared by many liberal and progressive women of color believers.

I think there are fewer liberal/progressive women of color who are willing to cross that line and reject God belief, spiritualism and organized religion simply because mainstream humanism and atheism are heavily white-identified. Despite the growth of atheist of color groups, clubs and social networks there are no national organizations that provide the type of resourcing, professional support and political and educational platforms that churches and faith-based organizations (be they progressive, conservative or somewhere in between) provide for many people of color. Developing feminist/humanist programs and institutions that redress the structural inequities organized religion thrives on should be a major priority for humanist women of color.

 

Sikivu Hutchinson is an author and educator. She is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels. She is a contributing editor for The Feminist Wire and a visiting scholar at USC’s Center for Feminist Research. She is also founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a high school feminist mentoring program in South L.A. Her forthcoming novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, on Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre, is due in the Fall of 2015.

Kile Jones is an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons. He is also the founder of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day” and Claremont Journal of Religion. His twitter is @KileBJones

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Categories: Activism, Black Feminism, Christianity, General, In the News, Racism, Social Justice, Women's Voices

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13 replies

  1. Wow–this is majorly thought-provoking! I’ll be thinking about this blog all day. Ms. Hutchinson is correct that the America that Norman Rockwell illustrated needs to be questioned. People living in that America also need to be asking questions. Lots of questions.

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  2. After reading this blog post I realized that one of my assumptions about atheists is that they are well-off and from a privileged class in society. I assume that poor, marginalized and discriminated against minorities cling to religion for solace, and atheism does not provide solace. Time to discard an old theory. Good stuff.

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  3. Two things have made themselves clear to me regarding atheism, lately.
    1- As it becomes mainstream, atheism is turning into a religion. People attach it to their name as a defining characteristic, of what, I don’t know. It sits opposite something too, and that something may seem inwardly the unequal/ disjunction/ abuses in religion, but outwardly, seems to hold religion as the necessary rival it must defines itself against. In that, it is what maleness is to feminism and whiteness to blackness.

    2- As for other religions, atheism is now politicized, thinks to hold the absolute truth and is adamant in undermining the structure of faith and assert itself as the lone valid path. Atheists are trying to reframe religion, its value, its legacy and its future through the prism of their own non-faith. Breaking down the structure, legacy and appeal of the church for the believer by the non-believer is akin to hearing Ayaan Ali Hirsi tell muslims how to be better muslims, or how muslim women should handle the issues of their faith.

    The church is not just a structure, not just a building, not just a community, it is first and foremost the altar upon which one’s faith, one’s individual relationship to the divine is consecrated. That is an essential point that will be necessarily missed by anyone who lacks faith. Yes, atheism can be humanist, no one doubts that, but can’t be so on its own terms without recruiting from the church or hosting itself atop its ruins?

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    • *…can’t it be so on its own terms without recruiting from the church or hoisting itself atop its ruins?

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      • Can you please explain what this should include?
        Maybe it is caused by my lack of English language skill here, but I’m not able to follow this thought. Some people do not believe in god(s) and say this openly, quite often stating that all people have the same rights based on the same origin.
        How does this link to recruiting from churches or ruins of churches? Do you want to ban being an or expressing atheist thoughts? Is that your understanding of recruiting? And if yes, why should any religion allowed to do recruiting but not the lack of belief?

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    • You have also brought up some very good points. Thank you!

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    • How is atheism turning into a religion?
      That is a strawman at best, more often heard as a blatant lie. Could you please be a bit more specific with that comment? How can the rejection of god(s) turn into a religion, what kind of definition of the term religion is used in this context?
      Also your second is deeply flawed. Atheism is the rejection of god(s), how can this have changed over time? That is the only part that defines atheism, nothing else. Therefore, if the group is large enough, you will find any political view in this group. What kind of political position do you attribute to all or nearly all atheists?

      Why is it so hard to accept that some people just do not have any faith or belief at all. That is frustrating.

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  4. Blaubart
    no, i do not want to ban anything, especially atheism. At the most proximate level, faith is a choice,and non-faith is also a choice. If God allows humanity the fundamental right to choose faith or non-faith, who am I to decide for anyone whether they should believe or disbelieve?
    There has been non-faith as long as there has been faith, both being part and parcel of the human experience, especially as it relates to the divine, for God exists outside of faith or non-faith. Accepting or denying God does affirm Him, but only in relation to the human realm, but as we know, the essence of God (if He exists) makes Him necessarily greater than what the human perspective can frame.

    My point is not that atheism is bad, nor that it is immoral or lacks humanism (I actually admire greatly people whose morality is sustained by a just conscience rather than carrots and a stick. And we can debate the idea that morality is inherent to humanity and present in every human being, and one cannot provide himself morals, only exercise the innate ability to make moral choices.) My point is that though modern atheism condemns religion and its ideals and structure, it uses the same ideals (humanism and goodwill), the same structure (gaining social and political power), the same fundamentalist bent to asserts itself.
    Non-faith is a philosophy, which has turned from a historically individual stance to a communal stance nowadays. There has been a thriving atheism philosophical current that has existed alongside religion, offering a counter narrative that was atheist mainly with some anti-theist expressions.

    Nowadays however, atheism is mainly anti-theist, and poses itself as the anti-religion, the alternative to a structure it finds anachronistic and dangerous. It has high priests or prophets in the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam harris, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher. They provide the holy books and the talking points that the flock uses to attack religion and the religious.
    Now, if there is a philosophy, a holy book, a communal/individual identity, a rivalry against other philosophies, tenets and dogmas, how isn’t it a religion?

    It is no longer sufficient for atheism to “believe” (considering it is a claim that cannot be ascertained, yet is adamantly supported) that there is no God, it asserts the certainty of there being no God and though it cannot prove it, it still attacks religions for holding on to a belief that they cannot prove. Which brings it to the same exact point where religion sits, a certainty that is neither provable nor disprovable. This is why I abandoned Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion book, the only book I ever failed to finish, for it attacks religion for using the same fallacies that he used to support his own atheist argument.
    Additionally, while atheism claims that the lack of belief in God is that just that, a state of being that exists in a vacuum, once atheism becomes communal and therefore political, it becomes active and therefore is a(n) (re)action, the expression of atheism going from speaking personally to speaking communally, from faith (individual) to religion (communal).

    Current atheism is militant, it is aggressive, it is reactive and it is acting on its non-beliefs just as the religious acts on their beliefs. If non-belief is the baseline, atheism does not remain there and non-act. It follows non-belief with the act of denial. A quick detour into Dawkins’ twitter account would show an active process of building up atheism by destroying religion.
    Additionally, atheism builds on a series of tenets/dogmas, that naturalism or scientism are the only truths, which it protects and rationalizes as hard as the religious do their own tenets.
    Finally, as offered prominent sociologist Emile Durkheim, religion is a “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”, and what is more sacred to atheists than science and naturalism?

    However, as there is a great variety of views and expressions in any religion/group/political entity, there is the same variety in views and expressions in atheism. Just as many religious are non-affiliated with any church or religious structure, so are there many atheists who are not affiliated with any atheist structure. So my characterization of atheism is a general view of it as it appears currently, not a view of each and all atheists.

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    • @po
      Thanks for the reply. Due to the limitation of the medium I will do my best to reply and hopefully it won’t be too unstructured to follow.

      I agree with the statement that some parts of atheism now is in a position where it can challenge belief openly and I do find that very positive. I would however not tie religion to humanism and goodwill, it certainly claims this connection and a lot of religious people do a lot of good things, structured religion quite often does exactly the opposite so I find it very good that people today can have an option if they are in need. Quite often religious organisations have limitations on who is going to receive help, e.g. if they are gay or have a different believe. I do not think that pressuring people into my belief as a step to help them is a good way to behave.

      On the next part I totally disagree, Atheism has no sacred books, no belief in afterlife, no organization and no dogmas (aside from a personal ‘I’m not convinced that there is a god’). That are the basics of every region we miss here and therefore I would not even call this argument wishful thinking. Based on the statements you made Communism would classify as a religion.

      Your statement on what Atheism beliefs is also so flawed that I have to assume you never really talked to one yourself, sorry. It is the lack of belief, or better the lack of being convinced that there is a god. Therefore it do not has to prove anything, the believers are making the claim that there is something and that this something has so much value rules can be made based on this something. Before I can accept this rules, you need to show me why I should care. Why should I wear a Hijab just because some group does believe that a god demands this?
      If we could agree upon that religion does not start to make rules based on the holy book, especially not rules for everyone, than I assume this whole debate could be stopped. Until then, it will be an issue that non-believers do not have started.

      For Science being the go to positon, that is not only true for Atheists. I have not seen any position that could challenge the success to explain the world and it rules. The only inherit conflict I see is the tendency from religions to provide explanations for things that do not hold up to science. However, that is hardly the fault of science for providing better explanations that are, in contrast to religious assertions, actually testable. If any religion would come up with some explanation that we could test and not only states something from an old book, I’m sure Atheists and Scientists will listen and retest it to see if they can validate this.
      Currently I can only see that science disproves a lot of religious claims. If you see that as a dogma I can’t change that but it gives a very good example on why religion does feel attacked by science even if it tries to be as neutral as possible.

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      • Sorry for the delay in my reply, Blaubart.
        I think one of the fallacies of modern atheism is to box in religion within the walls of what its adherents do. Modern atheists speak of religion as one entity, wholesale, that acts in unison, based on communal premises and dogmas that sustain all religious people.
        it could not be farther from the truth. There is no such thing as RELIGION. There are many Religions (communal), and each of those is further divided into religions (individual.)
        I understand however the need to gather them all into one entity to wage war against, sorta like us designating the various entities we fight under the term extremism, which gathers in its net the Russians as well as ISIS.
        So, saying that humanism and goodwill are not tied to religion, is factually true, but it is as incomplete of an idea as saying that atheists hold a monopoly on rationality. There are a great many immoral believers, and a great many moral atheists. The issue is not the individual, but more the structure. The structure of the individual tends for selfishness and satisfaction of the earthly appetites, while the structure of religion, all of them, tend to limit that selfishness and instead suggests morality and goodwill.
        Now, if we ask what makes that structure, we can go up the chain to its most basic utterance, the Prophetic message, or we can stay at its most diluted yet complex, the present one. The Prophetic message, across all faith, says no more than “Care for His, his/her’s and yours.” His combines all of creation, his/her’s deals with whatever was put under one’s neighbor’s responsibility, and yours includes whatever was put under your own responsibility. That structure is essentially moral and speaks only of goodwill. Though it has been changed, condensed at times, expounded upon most times, that message is the altar around which all faiths are built. That message has accompanied humanity since the beginning of time, and has relied on the church, the temple, the mosque to teach it and pass it down. Atheism, through the beginning of times, recognized that fact, and relied on it, just as every society relied on it to ensure its own stability.

        Another modern atheist fallacy is to ask believers to prove the existence of God when they are themselves unable to disprove the existence of God. So for both groups, there is a core, an empty space perceived by some as filled and rejected by the others. Whether approved or denied, that core space is still there and where it could be ignored by the atheist ancestors, the modern atheists are simply unable to ignore it for they are as dependent on it for their identity as the ones who acknowledge it.

        My shaykh told a story of being invited to dinner, which a known anti-theist would attend. As they are eating, chitchatting, the other guy suddenly blurted out :” you know, I don’t believe in God!”
        My shaykh looked up and answered: “and yet you are bringing Him up? He mustn’t be very far from your mind!”

        The third fallacy is to claim that religion is trying to impose things on people. No, religion isn’t, people are. The reasons why they do are various, and all of them have to do with power, authority and profit. The reason one may try to force the hijab upon you, or teach the bible in schools, or foment a coup in a foreign country to put in power people better suited to be manipulated into selling off the resources of the country are the same. Before serving the will of a God, they serve the wish of people, for authority, power or profit.
        Were modern atheists the dominant group, it is apparent to me that their worldview would be forced upon the believers..

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