Friends, countryfolk, students of secularism, direct your attention this way, please. Grab your lined notebooks and pens and take a seat facing the board. It is time for the lessons you didn’t get in high school, or for that matter in college. Sikivu Hutchinson’s new book, Godless Americana, will offer you the history, sociology, psychology and social studies you’ve been missing while asking why black people in America are so invested in the supposed religion of their oppressors. Buckle your seatbelts and keep your hands inside the car, because you will travel a very long way in a short period of time.
As we have come to expect from Dr. Hutchinson, there are no sacred cows, no privilege unexamined, no prejudice left unexposed. She stands in the middle of a set of groups which encompass practically everyone in America, emphatically including several groups which count her as a member, and she calls them all out on their inequality-perpetuating shit. If you’ve followed the politics within the atheist movement at all in the past couple of years, you’ve probably noticed that even a mild criticism of the behavior of some elements in the movement will open you up to an avalanche of shit raining down on your undefended head. Godless Americana is the honey badger of intra-atheism politics, because if you are under the impression that Dr. Hutchinson and her book give the slightest fuck about the Shit Avalanche, you will soon discover that you are mistaken.
Dominant American society is full of white supremacism and patriarchy, the black community is shot through with patriarchy and heterosexism, the mainstream feminist movement is soaking in racism and classism, and the mainstream atheist movement is generously laden with the baggage of patriarchy, white supremacism and classism thanks to its roots in the emphatically inegalitarian culture that enabled its development. These issues are all related in keeping black and Latina women heavily invested in Christianity.
Of particular relevance to mainstream (white) atheist culture is Hutchinson’s exploration of a syndrome known as scientism. This is a word that tends to make atheist brains (including my own) shut down as soon as we hear it from the mouth of a religious apologist, but I urge my fellow white secularists not to let this turn them off the book. For the purposes of this review, I will draw a distinction between small-s science, as a system of investigation, and big-s Science, as a cultural institution and body of acquired knowledge. Scientism implies not an appreciation for the former, but an overreliance and unquestioning trust of the latter, without concern for its long history of unethical and abusive experimentation on marginalized people whose descendants are now understandably mistrustful of the representatives of Science. While science is a self-correcting system, scientists are only human and their work takes cues from the system of inequalities in which they grew up. For a concrete example of the problems with atheism’s enthusiasm for Science, Dr. Hutchinson surmises that if Science were to take on the question of why so many African-Americans are incarcerated, it would conclude that blacks are a deviant race and must be socially engineered. The efficacy of using hypothesis, experiment and evidence to answer a question is a separate issue from the actions of scientists, and that tension between ideal and practice has made Science a problematic institution for many African-Americans, especially women, who bore the brunt of Science’s disregard for informed consent and human dignity.
The main theme running throughout Godless Americana is that while investment in theistic religion is erroneous and itself a driving force in many social problems, the fact remains that secular society is inadequate to meet the needs of many African-Americans and Latinos, which is why these groups are so much more invested in Christianity than whites. It is in answer to the question of how atheism can become more diverse and relevant that it is in the atheist movement’s interest to focus more on social justice issues, particularly those concerned with poverty, incarceration and sexual violence, and less on church-state separation. It is also because addressing these inequalities is the right thing to do. If the atheist/skeptic/humanist movement wants to do good in the world, then it must take interest in the concerns of people outside of those who are already educated in physical sciences and can afford to attend conferences. If you find yourself tearing your skeptical hair out over the question of how the movement can attract more people of minority racial groups, and/or attract more women—and these are not separate and discrete groups—then a great place to start is to read Godless Americana. It’s a much better deal than paying for all those history and sociology classes, but be careful about reading it on mass transit: you might miss your stop.
Disclaimer: This here blogger received a free copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review. I have received no other compensation and have no financial stake in the book’s success.