Book Review: Godless Americana

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.

Go buy the book. Do it. Click on the picture and buy the book.

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. 

Monday Moron: Protect My Delicate Upper-Crust Frailness from Those Unwashed Brutes!

Via Pharyngula, some other delicate flower, this time a student at NYU, has really laid a steaming deuce in her bed. As much as I could complain about my Albanian high school kids who would have rather done just about anything except learn English, at least they kept their sense of entitlement to a level whose topography they understood. If that just came out as Greek, think of it like this: if you want to climb trees on someone else’s property, at least keep to a level from which you can safely climb down again on your own power. And then we have Sara Ackerman, who didn’t agree with Prof. Zaloom’s assignment of an ethnographic study of Occupy Wall Street protesters, and concluded with an ultimatum:

Lastly, I have over 1,000 friends on facebook, and if Professor Zaloom does not resign, or is not fired by 9 am tomorrow morning, I will publish every single email exchange we have had, on my facebook account.

You read that right. She wanted the professor to be out of a job, or else she would publish the professor’s emails to her Facebook feed.

The practical upshot is that Prof. Zaloom looks like an honest, reasonable educator who is still safely employed and Sara Ackerman looks like a caricature of rarefied, constantly threatened privilege. She sounds like she grew up in a household in which “delicate constitution” was a part of the daily vocabulary. She spent a few months as a thorn in her professor’s side, disrupting her classmates’ lessons, and now she has succeeded in embarrassing herself in front of a lot more than those 1,000 Facebook friends.

Americans still working visceral racism out of their systems

UPI shows us the results of a Gallup poll on interracial marriage:

Ninety-six percent of African-Americans, who have always been more approving of marriage between blacks whites, approve of such unions, while 84 percent of whites approve.

The aggregate from the poll sample is 86% approval. In other non-news, they admit:
Approval of black-white marriages is slightly lower among Southerners, Republicans, conservatives and those in lower education levels. The elderly are the least approving group at 66 percent.
If “the elderly” (that impenetrable monolith) are at 66% approval, then it follows that the younger generations are much higher, and that the Millenials are nearly 100%.
Now I want more information. When we examine approval of interracial marriages in various combinations (i.e., there are more than two racial groups in this country which may intermarry), we find that all interracial relationships are not accepted equally. It’s still no surprise that blacks are more accepting than whites, but I want to see the numbers on other racial groups, because the picture is not complete without them. Last I heard, white folks were still the most racist bunch in our country (where “racist” is defined as objecting to people of their own race marrying “outside” the group, so to speak), which doesn’t benefit us, but since we are still the majority it doesn’t limit us to the same extent as it would do to a group with smaller numbers. It would be interesting to see how Latinos, Asians and Native Americans (those categories being still oversimplified) approve of interracial marriages, though in a sample size of only 1319, there might not be enough of some groups to provide usable results.
It isn’t only numbers that would explain the difference, though. That’s not even getting into racist anxieties about America becoming a majority-minority nation in the foreseeable future, and it doesn’t even touch the phenomenon of whites occupying the place of default, or non-race. Minority groups have to think about race in ways the majority doesn’t. Disparities in acceptance are a reflection of how the majority is allowed to insulate itself from diversity.

Those liberal atheist professors are coming for your sweet Christian babies!

Via Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf asks why so many Americans come out of higher education with their religious faith considerably eroded. Apparently, Dennis Prager is all concerned that the university system is ruled by an evil cabal of liberal heathen professors using their vicious mind-controlling powers to churn out whole generations of left-wing secularists.

To me, there are better explanations for the fact that “the more university education a person receives, the more likely he is to hold secular and left-wing views.” One is that people who attend college leave home. That is to say, they leave their church, the community incentives to attend it, and the watchful eye of parents who get angry or make them feel guilty when they don’t go to services or stray in their faith. Suddenly they’re surrounded by dorm mates of different faiths or no faith at all. For many of these students, it turns out that their religious behavior was driven more by desire for community, or social and parental pressure, than by deeply held beliefs. Another reason education correlates with secularism is that secularists are more likely to seek advanced degrees, partly because they’re more focused than their religious counterparts on career.

Here we have two (not incompatible) theories: one, it isn’t necessarily the university that makes young people less religious, it’s the removal from the student’s sheltered home environment and sudden access to a diversity of beliefs. Two, the causal relationship is in the opposite direction. It’s not that education causes secularism, but that secularism on the individual level leads to more education.

There is further insight in the comments. For example:

Conor – you’re trying too hard! The negative correlation between education and religious belief holds up across countries, and the American phenomenon of traveling away home for college is much more prevalent here than in most other western countries where the same correlation can be observed.

The answer is much simpler. Education is a proxy for intelligence, and the more intelligent a person is, the less likely they are to hold religious beliefs.

Since education is a profoundly imperfect proxy for intelligence (particularly higher education in a country where attending university is prohibitively expensive for many people), I’m going to disagree with the second paragraph and instead focus on the first. It has indeed been observed that there is a very obvious negative correlation between educational attainment and religiosity, but it’s bigger than educational attainment. There is a major positive correlation between poverty/inequality, low educational attainment, and a whole host of social dysfunctions…with high religiosity. This is not to say that religion causes social problems (although one does have to wonder about the socioeconomic effect of teaching whole countries full of people that using birth control makes Baby Jesus cry), just that they tend to go hand-in-hand at the population level. I’m more inclined to think that poverty leads to social problems, and the insecurity of living in the midst of those problems leads to higher religiosity.

Thus, could it be (at least partly) that Americans who attend university are more affluent to begin with, and therefore tend to be less reliant on religion? It would be interesting to compare the data on the relationship between educational attainment and religious participation between wealthier students (whose parents can afford to send them to college), and poorer students (using scholarships and need-based aid to pay for school) and see what patterns emerge. It would also be interesting to investigate Friedersdorf’s first hypothesis and compare the data between students who attend school far away from home and those who either live close enough to commute or who go home every weekend. It would still be necessary in that case to control for household income, as out-of-state tuition and out-of-home living quarters both make higher education much more expensive.

Furthermore, there’s also the power of critical thinking; other commenters have described how their post-secondary educations gave them the tools to start thinking for themselves, whereas their religious upbringings focused on believing what they were told, even if it didn’t make sense. Those are the “ill-defined, superhuman powers to shape the minds of its charges” (in Friedersdorf’s words) which Prager apparently fears our university system wields.

Comparing oranges to citrus fruits

Via Amanda Marcotte on Twitter, Brenda Major sets the record straight at WaPo on mental health after abortion:

As part of this strategy, some antiabortion activists, such as David Reardon of the Elliot Institute, an antiabortion advocacy group, have scoured existing survey data for evidence linking abortion and a wide variety of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and alcohol use. They cite any correlations they find as evidence that abortion causes harm to women.

But there are at least two logical flaws at play here. The first is a confusion of correlation with causation. The most plausible explanation for the association that some studies find between abortion and mental health is that it reflects preexisting differences between women who continue a pregnancy and those who end one.

Prof. Major stops short of pointing out, in so many words, that the Elliot Institute and its ilk are basically comparing oranges to citrus fruits. It is piss-poor social science to compare women who resolve their unintended pregnancies through abortion to the general population of women who give birth. The latter group includes women with pregnancies covering the full range of planned and unplanned, wanted and unwanted. The former is pretty much by definition, composed overwhelmingly of women with unintended, unwanted pregnancies. The remainder are women with life-threatening health problems and those carrying fetuses with major abnormalities.

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Atheists outperform believers on religion quiz; Internet shits itself

My Facebook feed is just…covered in this story. Atheists Outdo Some Believers in Survey on Religion. Since I am perpetually hyperconscious of being perpetually out of the loop, I just had to know what everyone was talking about, and this is what it says:

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions […]

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

Sure enough, at the top of the list are atheists/agnostics, followed razor-close behind by Jews and Mormons. Evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants follow.

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How discussion of sex brings the funny

First, we have a half-assed “review” of Sex at Dawn by Megan McArdle, who demonstrates how to make an argument by assertion without bothering to be subtle about it:

Here’s the thing: humans aren’t like bonobos. And do you know how I know that we are not like bonobos? Because we’re not like bonobos. There’s no way observed human societies grew out of a species organized along the lines of a bonobo tribe.” (emphasis in original)

I’m sorry, but she just ripped the rug right out from under me. I can’t parody that. The parody is built right in, which leaves me with nothing to do except add a little imagery: picture an 8-year-old with face stuck in permanent eye-roll position, hands reflexively on hips, and she cuts off everything you try to say with, “Nuh-uh!” Only now, the 8-year-old is employed full-time by The Atlantic.

And then the author of the book which McArdle hates so much offers up this suggestion:

Genital-genital (G-G) rubbing between female bonobos appears to affirm female bonding, is present in all bonobo populations studied (wild and captive), and is completely absent in chimpanzees. Human data on G-G rubbing are presently unavailable. (Attention: ambitious graduate students!)

Emphasis is so, so mine!

Thanks to Christopher Ryan for my first LOL of the week!

Is Parental Gender-Role Scaremongering Necessary?

Pamela Paul at the Atlantic explores the significance of gender in parenting. As Dr. Gartrell has pointed out, the research is finding that it doesn’t mean that much:

In the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University, and Timothy Biblarz, a demographer from the University of Southern California, consolidated the available data on the role of gender in child rearing. As Stacey and Biblarz point out, our ideas of what dads do and provide are based primarily on contrasts between married-couple parents and single-female parents: an apples-to-oranges exercise that conflates gender, sexual orientation, marital status, and biogenetic relationships in ways that a true comparison of parent gender—one that compared married gay-male couples or married lesbian couples to married heterosexuals, or single fathers to single mothers—would not. Most of the data fail to distinguish between a father and the income a father provides, or between the presence of a father and the presence of a second parent, regardless of gender.

This is nothing that most non-patriarchalist liberals haven’t figured out already. Two parents tend to have a better handle on their kids than one, poverty is rough on growing kids in ways that affluence isn’t, and spending plenty of time with kids is more important than having both genders represented.

With this in mind, Barack Obama, whom Paul cites as a “freakish outlier” from the statistics on fatherless children, is a really bad example. Obama grew up with a single mother, and with two grandparents, and when he didn’t have his grandparents, he had a stepfather. His young, divorced, adventurous mother was far from alone in raising her son.

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“Mommy! Mama! Get the nasty bigot away from our study!”

New study in Pediatrics says lesbian moms WIN.

A nearly 25-year study concluded that children raised in lesbian households were psychologically well-adjusted and had fewer behavioral problems than their peers.

Is this bringing out the crazies?

Does a deer shit in the woods?!

Wendy Wright, president of the Concerned Women for America, a group that supports biblical values, questioned the legitimacy of the findings from a study funded by gay advocacy groups.

“That proves the prejudice and bias of the study,” she said. “This study was clearly designed to come out with one outcome — to attempt to sway people that children are not detrimentally affected in a homosexual household.”

Agggghh, kill it, Mommies! Kill it with fire!

I know about Wendy Wright from reading The Greatest Show On Earth, in which she demonstrates to Prof. Dawkins that she has no receptive language skills. I won’t quote her here; when I want to lose brain cells, I get really drunk.

Anyway. What I take away from the study is that the parents’ gender combination is nowhere near as important as the children being wanted and planned by prepared, mature, loving parents. That’s not good enough for Wendy Wright, though.

“In essence, this study claims to purport that children do better when raised by lesbians,” she said.

Really chaps your hide, doesn’t it, you self-parodying clown?

Studies have shown that children thrive having both a mother and a father, Wright said.

Citation, please.

“You have to be a little suspicious of any study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father,” she said. “It just defies common sense and reality.”

I see you know all about bias, prejudice and predetermining the outcome!

Let’s see the study’s findings in better detail, shall we?

Children from lesbian families rated higher in social, academic and total competence. They also showed lower rates in social, rule-breaking, aggressive problem behavior.

What’s that you say? Children raised by two women DON’T grow up all deviant and delinquent? Amazing!

Finally: if you’re concerned about the limited scope of Dr. Gartrell’s study, you know what we need?

MOAR STUDIES on this subject! MOAR, I say!

My white privilege, let me show you it!

Everyone and their mom is talking about Stephanie Grace and her foot-in-mouth email theorizing on racial differences, so of course I’m going to jump into the fray.

Copy-pasted from Above The Law, the exact content of the email in question is below the jump, and I have bolded the parts that set off my particular alarm bells.

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