SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

As most of you hopefully know, it’s SSA Week!

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Why is SSA Week so important? Ed Brayton has the best lowdown, in my opinion:

First, because of their incredible success and growth. The public schools have long been home to thousands and thousands of Christian student groups, from Bible clubs to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, providing friendship and community to their members. Secular students need that kind of community even more given the generally hostile attitude toward atheists, agnostics and humanists. It can feel pretty lonely being non-Christian in this society, especially as a teenager.

SSA is building the next generation of leaders for this movement. I speak to SSA clubs regularly and I am always encouraged to see so many bright and engaged young people. I see people like Jessica, Harrison Hopkins, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan, Ellen Lundgren, Monica Harmsen, Hassan Kalifeh, Gordon Maples and many others as being groomed for future leadership positions and I am greatly encouraged. I hope you are too.

I’m not even offended that Ed didn’t mention me by name. Harrumph, etc.

Seriously, though, the SSA is a phenomenal organization, and the great people who work there and at CFI on Campus, especially Lyz Liddell, Sarah Moglia, and Debbie Goddard, have been huge influences on me over the past four years and have enabled me to learn how to be a good activist and organizer. Without them, my time as President of DAFT would have been much less fun.

Speaking of which, my time as El Presidente is rapidly coming to an end. Given what the job market is like, I have no idea what my future in the secular movement looks like; I’d love to get a job in it and work there, but whether that happens or not is up in the air. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep supporting the SSA, and CFI, because I owe them massively for making my life more fun and more meaningful, and there are far too many students and activists across the country to name who can say the same.

In which we play with puppies...

Last year, Chana and I played with puppies for SSA Week. It was the best.

I’m not sure if I can blogathon for SSA Week like I did last year, because blogging time is a thing I have so very little of any more, but definitely make sure to check out all the other things that other writers are doing for the week. And, if you can, please throw a few bucks their way. They’ll put it to good use!

Real World Activism At Its Finest

A few weeks ago, I attended the inaugural iteration of the SkepTech conference, put on by a bunch of really awesome people up in Minneapolis. While I mostly went because I wanted to see old friends from far-flung places, and meet new ones (including that lovable scamp Jason Thibeault), I was also on a panel with JT Eberhard, Brianne Bilyeu, Miri Mogilevsky, and Olivia James on activism. You can see it below:

There’s a lot more to be said about activism as an enterprise than we managed to get to. Me, I’m definitely the most radically-minded of the people on that panel; as readers of mine will know, I don’t exactly hold much “typical” activism, like American Atheists billboards, in very high regard. But, rather than wax social justicey on what I think activism should be, I want to share this campaign from the Crunk Feminist Collective [emphasis mine]:

There are some places where people are warned never to go, known for violence, drug traffic, and poverty.  For those who have not grown up in these environments we are taught to fear and/or condemn people who live there.  This is not true of everyone.  There are some s/heroes who “see the faces at the bottom of the well,” and offer a rope AND a bucket of food and water.  Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) is the rescue organization where prevention is key and care is unconditional.  This week the CFC will spotlight AHRC because they need our support to keep their doors open.

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Atlanta Harm Reduction offers the only consistent syringe exchange program in the southeast region.  According to Mona Phillips, a founding member, their early advocacy work began with people living with HIV/AIDS.  During direct action campaigns to raise awareness about Atlantans needing access to affordable pharmaceutical drugs in 1996 they started seeing syringes on the ground.  Recognizing this marker to mean resurgence in heroin use they literally followed the syringes and the word on the street to English Avenue and set up shop there.

AHR has been in English Avenue since 1998 providing: FREE HIV testing, counseling, and connection with additional resources; FREE meals and hot showers a few days a week; FREE access computers and internet; FREE clothes closet access; FREE counseling for people with addictions; FREE Hepatitis A and B vaccines; FREE drug paraphernalia to stop the spread of AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C; FREE condoms and counseling for sex workers everyday. The syringe exchange program, assumed to target people who use recreational drugs only, is also important for people with diabetes to inject insulin as well as transgender people for hormone injections.

Where others choose to avoid the basic needs of so many people in this area because they don’t approve of their choices…Atlanta Harm Reduction rushed in.

In my mind, AHRC is an example of the absolute best kind of activism. People are volunteering their time to help those for whom there is no other help, working to empower the people with the least amount of power in our society. It’s not some blue-chip non-profit empire with flashy commercials and feel-good messages, but an actual sustained campaign to do good by providing direct assistance to those who need it most.

This is the kind of thing there needs to be more of. If you can, please shoot them a few dollars by going to their website, or if you live in or around Atlanta, volunteer with their program. It’s the things like this that make the biggest difference.

The Racist Nature of Critiques of Islamic Culture

There’s something that just has not managed to permeate the collective skulls of Western discourse, and by extension the atheist community. This something is second nature, an obvious sense, for anyone who takes part in or is schooled by radical progressive social movements. That thing is the nature of how racism works. And honestly, in this post, I don’t have a lot new to add to this conversation if you’re a regular reader of Crommunist’s, or of Crunk Feminists or the many many awesome bloggers who focus on racism out there. My only goal here is to tackle this beast that continually dogs atheists, and that they refuse to engage with in a really childish way: Islamophobia.

The particular strand of Islamophobia I’m going to talk about here is the sort that is directed from the atheist movement by its leading lights; for ten years now, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, and plenty of others have reserved their best vitriol for anything associated with Islam. They attack it and its followers in a way they don’t attack Christianity or Judaism or any other faith; they declare Islam “the greatest force for evil today,” use words like barbaric , warlike, savage, words that generally evoke images of medieval warfare and pagan blood rites, terminology more akin to hordes of orcs than human beings who worship a certain way. And it’s not just Dawkins et al who do this; when pretty much anyone writes about Islam in Western media, it is always accompanied with these dehumanizing terms. The same cannot be said of when they write about creationists.

First of all, I want to make a claim that will already put most people who read this post into a spluttering rage: Islamophobia is a thing that exists. Just as much as any other phobia, i.e. an irrational fear, can exist. Saying that irrational fear of Islam does not exist, as some have done, is to ignore evidence and common sense in the same way that creationists poo-poo evolutionary theory. So, for those of us who accept that there are those who blindly hate and fear Muslims, we can pillory those who deny it, and furthermore engage in noxious attacks on the Muslim world at large, in the same way PZ Myers attacks fundamentalists. In fact, it’s rather poetic that we can do it in his way, since he’s one of the ones who routinely denies Islamophobic attacks.

Frankly, whenever it happens, what springs to mind for me when I read these posts is the old literature about blacks; the great white intellectuals like Meiners and Kant who spoke of them as being human in form but animal in mind and other pseudoscientific tropes. Blacks were cast as barbarians, less-evolved beings from “the dark continent” who were not true human beings because they had not been the beneficiaries of white knowledge and learning. The same is now done in our modern society to Muslims. Since 9/11, we’ve been taught by the government and the media to fear not just Islam as an idea, but anyone who “looks Muslim;” as such, stories of suspicion, discrimination, and violence against American Muslims and those who are not Muslim but look like they might be are legion.

Think back to the manufactured uproar around the Park51 community center that an Islamic group wanted to build near the site of Ground Zero in 2010. Hysterical newscasters and pundits declared that this place was going to become a terrorist training camp, with tiny children working the monkey bars and firing AK-47’s, young minds formed by wicked imams to become the Battery Park Taliban. Sam Harris, ever the neocon, was right there, speaking out against it, raving about how it would be seen as a conquering moment for Islamic terrorists. But it isn’t. It’s a JCC run by people with Middle Eastern-sounding names who happen to think a seventh-century political leader was pretty cool. Divine, even. The controversy was a manufactured one, based on cultural stigma and racism, nothing that was substantive in any way.

Now, I don’t mean to discount the fact that there are Islamic terrorists who do terrible things. Obviously, there are. But they are often cast as being the only terrorists, or the most evil and dangerous, when plenty of white Christians are committing terrorist attacks; Anders Breivik, Wade Michael Page, and Adam Lanza’s atrocities are not couched in the same kind of racial, imperialist language as are Muslim attacks. The epidemic of sexual violence against women and killings of trans* people in the United States isn’t acknowledged by these thinkers, but they practically froth at the mouth over honor killings and veils in the Middle East. Nathan Lean made this point as well in a recent piece for Salon:

Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims: “At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.” And then this: “Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”

Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”

I don’t know if these people are truly racist or not. They and their fanboys certainly don’t think that they are. But they exhibit a strong pattern of critique that is based on racist and imperialist assumptions of Muslims and their society, not on the substantive fact that this violence of the sort they pin on Islam is systemic and permeates every single group of people on this planet. Honor killings and beatings of wives and daughters is not an exclusively Muslim practice: it happens everywhere. Terrorism is not a Muslim invention; it comes from everywhere. They only critique patriarchy and violence when it involves Muslims, and ignore it elsewhere; their rhetoric smacks of opportunism, not of real concern.

Dawkins, Harris, and all the others who continuously pick out Islam as the world’s one true problem need to think bigger, and need to realize their own innate prejudices. Their critiques are not fair, and they are not rational; they are attacking a certain pattern of behavior and attributing it to one extremely oppressed and marginalized group of people, and seem to have blinders on to the same behavior when it involves white, “civilized” people. That is racist. That is bigoted. That is lazy thinking. We can, and should, critique Islam without bowing to these kind of tropes.

I’m Going to SkepTech!

In a continuing effort to get my brain back on track, I’ve just returned from an awesome week or so away, where I saw a ton of friends old and new, had some truly fascinating and invigorating conversations, and drank a bit of beer. By a bit, I mean a lot.

I also was completely beguiled by Boston. I just don’t understand how it operates. It’s got no reason to how it is laid out. And all the trains are from the 1940s. I was half expecting to be asked whether I wanted to buy bonds for the war effort. But I had fun, nonetheless.

I’m back in Chicago now for a whole three days before I take off this weekend for what promises to be a truly awesome conference up in Minneapolis called SkepTech. Here are a few things about it, from the organizers:

1) What is SkepTech?

SkepTech is a mix of two words “Skepticism” (A disposition of systematic doubt) and “Technology” (The practical application of knowledge). In other words, our conference is all about the relationship between critical thinking and innovation.

2) What makes this conference important?

This conference is led by two campus skeptical groups – Campus Atheists Skeptics and Humanists at the University of Minnesota (CASH), and the Secular Student Alliance Afilliate at St. Cloud State University (SSA@SCSU). As skeptics, we see systematic doubt as an essential tool in improving our world.

There are plenty of conferences out there that demonstrate new technology. There are plenty of conferences out there that go after superstition and dogma. Our conference is different in that our desire is focused. Above all else we want to promote fact checking as an essential tool for scientific, technological, and humanitarian progress.

3) What are the goals for this conference?

To give our community a unique look at the role of critical thinking in the sciences
To explore new ways of using technology to overcome social problems
To teach people how to use the internet to challenge ideas effectively
To have ridiculous amounts of fun.

In addition to featuring lots of fabulous speakers like Greta Christina, Brianne Bilyeu, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, and Jesse Galef, I’ll be on a panel on Sunday with JT, Brianne, and Miri Mogilevsky on Internet vs. Real World Activism. Its prompt is this:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

If you know me or have been reading this blog, you know this is a thing that I have Lots Of Feelings about. So, it should be a very interesting discussion.

I hope to see you there, and look out for  a return to normal-ish service here by next week.

Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta

Sparked by my piece on transmisogyny from a little while ago, Greta Christina and I have been having a conversation about atheist activism and what its priorities should be, amongst other things. You can check out Greta’s latest addition to it, which I will be responding to below, here.

First off, Greta, in regards to your asking if I think being in the closet with regards to one’s beliefs isn’t oppressive, certainly not. But there is definitely, without question, a big difference between the two. Your commenter johnstumbles said exactly what I would say in response; that we as atheists having a choice whether or not to be out is better, and inherently grants us more control over our lives, than those who do not have the ability to pass, or remain closeted. Even if an atheist is living in the deep south, in a super conservative town where Cowboy Jesus is the mayor, if they are of an economically stable class, they are white, they are male, and they are employed, then that means that this atheist has control over their lives, in a way that a person who is not white, part of the working class,  and their appearance doesn’t readily fit into the gender binary does not. A person belonging to any of the latter groups fundamentally is struggling against systemic oppression of the sort that we have allowed to be entrenched in America for decades, if not centuries.

If you’re poor in America, it’s likely you’ll stay that way thanks to how capitalism works here. If you’re a person of color, you’re going to be treated worse than a white person will. The same goes for being a woman, or someone who doesn’t fit into the male/female boxes. Our society is set up precisely to make sure that such people have no ability to improve their lives in a way that being an out atheist simply does not entail. Being an atheist in the deep south certainly isn’t a good thing in most cases, and being identified as such can have poor consequences, this I grant you, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s far from the worst thing to be in terms of being able to live a reasonably comfortable life. It is this last part that most atheists have the ability to live, whereas, say, a trans* person does not except in rare cases.

Regarding the billboards and nativity scenes; I didn’t say that they should stop completely, and I didn’t mean to give that indication. I think that they can serve all of the purposes that you have listed, and I cannot deny that importance. What I am saying, though, is that they are not enough. For instance, Greta, I have heard you speak (hosted you, even!) on the similarities between the coming out experience for atheists versus that of queer people. You have spoken very eloquently on how, in terms of the gay rights movement, one of the main reasons it has gained mainstream visibility is that more and more straight people realized their friends and loved ones were gay, and thus acceptance bloomed. This is true, but only in part. The gay rights movement would never be here unless Stonewall, which was started and kept alive by trans* folks, had happened, along with the many other lesser-known radical demonstrations that happened before and after it. The same is true for the Civil Rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr., though definitely not exactly the tame, peace-loving hippie that he has been been whitewashed into our consciousness, would have accomplished a lot less if it hadn’t been for the actions of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers.

The same is true for atheism, and it adds more to my first point. Firstly, that in order to have a successful movement, we have to work in many different ways, both inside and out of the corridors of power. While one group works for popularizing, like many do with billboards, others have to be looking at the bigger picture, the one where we see ourselves situated in a hugely powerful system of intersecting oppression. Simply looking to make atheism popular and well-known, like has happened with gay rights, will not do enough. We have seen that in the gay marriage conversation, where it has become an accepted assumption that once equal marriage is a achieved, all problems relating to queer folk will be solved. This is simply not the case, but non-normative queer folk, like trans* people and homeless youth, have been completely erased from the conversation, so that’s what society thinks.

To my bigger point, Stonewall and the Panthers arose because those communities faced, and still do to this day, unrelenting pressure and prejudice from the government, particularly through the police. The existences of people who do not fit our ideal norms have their existences criminalized, their voices silenced; not just with trans* people, but with women, as we’ve seen plenty of times recently in the national debate over the right for women to have control of their own bodies. Black men are routinely stopped simply for their skin color, and are arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than any other group. To my knowledge, for American atheists, i.e. the ones we have been addressing in this conversation, this does not happen. This gives us privilege. It allows us to focus on popularizing our existence rather than struggle for survival. We are fortunate for that, but we cannot take it for granted.

Finally, to your point about wanting people to be activists who are eager to do that sort of activism: I agree, you don’t want people who are only going through the motions working for change. However, what I want from our atheist organizations and leaders is a recognition of how fortunate we Western secularists are, in comparison to other groups in our world. We’ve got it pretty damn good. That means we have power, and we can put that power to good use once, as a community, we flick off the blinders and open our eyes to how the world works and how we as a society are complicit in the oppression of our brothers and sisters who lack the privileges that you and I, Greta, as white, middle-class people with the time to write blogs have, and then work to make change. For the record, I think the Center for Inquiry is already doing this, as is Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Secular Student Alliance to a degree. But more organizations can, and I think are capable of doing so.

If the goal of the atheist movement is to make the world a better place, we have to look at the big picture, because working away in our own little corner will do no good for anyone but us in the long run. I do not want our movement to repeat the mistake of the gay rights movement and favor only the most acceptable segment of our group and leave others behind. We need to work for justice for everyone, because justice for a privileged few is no justice at all.

Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing

For the past little while, Greta Christina and I have been having an e-mail discussion about a piece I wrote entitled “Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression,” which some of you may have read. Greta took issue with some comments I made about the difference in scale I see between atheist oppression and that leveled against trans* and gender non-conforming folks. We have decided to take the conversation public, and I am incredibly grateful to Greta for how she has gone about this conversation; she is without question one of the best writers and people in this movement, and one of the reasons I write in the first place. I can’t properly express how flattered I am that she has taken the time to do this. You can read her first post in this series by following this link. What you will read below is my initial reply to her.

Continue reading

The Women’s Leadership Project Review of 2012

Doctor Sikivu Hutchinson, the activist, scholar, author of what I believe to be the most important atheist book written to date, and huge inspiration to me, is amongst other things the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist mentoring program for middle and high school aged women in South Los Angeles. I wrote about them a few months ago in my piece on the activism of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and how I believe atheist activism can and should focus its attentions more on issues pertaining to more than just separation of church and state.

They recently posted a recap of their work in 2012, and what they have to report is inspiring:

  • WLP Wash Prep & GHS developed and facilitated Days of Dialogue, HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice, sexual assault awareness, AB540, media literacy and voter awareness presentations
  • WLP Wash Prep students registered new voters at Wash Prep and Duke Ellington HS
  • WLP launched Wash Prep’s Gay/Straight Alliance
  • WLP students and alum developed and presented at the HRC’s annual Youth Media Education Conference
  • WLP alum joined with community partners Black Women for Wellness and FUEL to conduct four college panels at Wash Prep, GHS and Cal State Dominguez Hills
  • WLP Wash Prep president Jamion Allen spoke before the LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District] Human Relations Commission on bullying and harassment
  • WLP Wash Prep sponsored Chicano student movement activist and change agent Paula Crisostomo for Women’s History Month & the Women of Color Speaker Series
  • WLP GHS member Karly Jeter (class of ’13) won a full four year Posse Foundation Scholarship to the College of William & Mary in D.C.
  • WLP Wash Prep member Victory Yates (class of ’13) was a finalist for a Posse Foundation Scholarship to Grinnell College
  • WLP GHS president Miani Giron (class of ’12) won full scholarships from the Posse Foundation and the Horatio Alger Foundation
  • WLP GHS seniors & alum Lizeth Soria, Janeth Silva, Imani Moses, Brenda Briones, Mayra Burunda, Clay Wesley (class of ’10), Miani Giron, Jimena Villa and Ronmely Andrade received community leadership “First in the Family” scholarships from the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable and the Wells Fargo Foundation
  • Mayra Borunda (class of ’10) made the President’s List at CSU Long Beach during her first semester with a GPA of 3.8 and is currently on the Dean’s List with a GPA of a 3.67.
  • Brenda Briones (class of ’12) got a 4.0 during her first college semester.
The students themselves had a lot to say about how their involvement with the WLP has affected them [emphasis mine]:

“In my home and in my community I have always understood that a higher education is not as important as having kids and staying home to clean and cook like a “real woman/ wife” does.

I think of Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) as the light in the darkness. As a senior at Gardena, I had no hope or desire to go to college before WLP. I used to think it would be impossible for me to attend college because I’m undocumented.”

– Liz Soria

“I never really questioned how the media portrays women of color. So, having WLP teach us how to observe and analyze the media helped me understand why young girls feel pressured to have ‘that long hair,’ ‘those blue eyes’—even if they are contacts, and “that nice body.” Aside from learning how to recognize these issues, we also did a lot of work to fight things that like sexual harassment. I know some people may say, ‘oh, just ignore it,’ but it’s not ok to ignore sexual harassment because by staying quiet, you begin to normalize it.”

– Imani Moses, Class of ’11

In my opinion, the WLP is doing absolutely incredible work, and we as a community of secularists should be bringing more attention to them. This is the kind of activism that our movement should be looking to invest in; fixing the education system using these kind of methods, using skepticism and rationality to help kids who probably never had anyone invested in their successes before care about them and help them learn. When a population realizes just how the world works, as an entrenched system of intersecting inequalities kept in place through convention and apathy, we can really shake things up.