The thing wrong with America is white racism. White folks are not right…It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks. - Dr. King
There may be periods where segregation may be a temporary waystation to a truly integrated society…We don’t want to be integrated out of power; we want to be integrated into power. – Dr. King
I am inclined to think that they [white moderates] are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner. – Dr. King
The “Decent White Majority”
The standard narrative regarding Dr. King’s approach to racial issues says that he was simply an integrationist who believed that with persuasion, nonviolence and love the conscience of the white majority could be won over and racial justice would be achieved. Racism, as he understood it was mainly psychological. This popular interpretation – the one the mainstream media loves – fails, however, to embrace a holistic view of his mature thinking on white people, institutional racism and white supremacy culture. While for much of his career he optimistically believed the “great decent majority” of whites could be transformed, he began, in 1965, to understand just how deeply embedded racism was and how unwilling white people were to give up privilege and power for the sake of racial justice. Whereas he had once described America in the highest democratic ideals, he began to see it as “a confused…sick, neurotic nation.”
The American Academy of Religion held its annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend. A large gathering that attracts many of the big shots — both progressive and conservative — in religious studies, the AAR meeting provides a space for critical dialogue about religion and the world. Not surprisingly there was a lack of discussion about atheism. But I was pleased to find one panel discussion on Monday morning called, “Beyond Atheistic and Religious Fundamentalism: Imagining the Common Good in the Public Sphere.” However, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I realized they forgot to do one important thing: include an atheist.
After the panel, I asked the organizer John Thatamanil of Union Seminary why there was no atheist included in a panel about atheism. He responded that in the quest for diversity he was bound to leave someone out. “Yes,” I said, “but this is a panel about atheism and you left out an atheist.” He responded that there was a Buddhist on the panel and they are atheists. However, it was a scholar of Buddhism on the panel and just because someone is a scholar of a particular religion it doesn’t mean they are practitioners. I have no idea what this person’s beliefs are. But that is beside the point because the Buddhist scholar didn’t represent atheist positions, nor did he defend atheism from the attacks by the other panelists but rather commented on how he felt Buddhism and the Buddha would see this debate.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
- Joseph Campbell
I can remember the moments just like they happened yesterday. On one occasion my friend and I were standing in the parking lot of my high school next to my gray two-door ’88 Nissan Sentra. He was looking at a paper I had written when he casually said, “you write like a girl.” For some reason, unknowingly to me in that moment, time stopped. His words resonated deep in my body. Despite this event occurring 15 years ago I can tell you the first and last name of the person who said it, the weather outside, the time of day, where we were standing in relation to my car…etc. Another time a high school friend told me that my leopard print steering wheel cover “was for girls.” When I bought it I had never even thought twice about it. It was simply what I wanted. But, again time stopped and I became extremely present. On one occasion a coworker told me I looked like a woman. His words shook me. All of these incidents shook me. While I wasn’t thinking this at the time I suppose at some deep level my spirit was saying in each occasion, “Oh, my god he knows.”
When these incidents occurred – in high school and in my early twenties I had never heard the word transgender before. This was in the mid 90′s and early 2000′s. I’m sure I’d heard the term transexual used in a pejorative manner, but my knowledge was extremely limited. Like many other teenage boys I had been called “gay,” “fag,” or “sissy” and a whole wide range of other terms – typical of the homophobia rampant in our culture. I know that I also participated in this homophobia by joining my guy friends in using this kind of language with each other. We’d also throw around sexist and racist jokes not realizing the impact these types of words have in everyday lives of people of color and women. But, despite me being called gay or fag those moments never stayed with me. I can’t remember even one specific incident in which I was called this, yet I can remember in painstaking detail the times I had been called a woman or a girl.
The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. – Dr. King
In another moment of Great American Irony President Obama inaugurated the Dr. King memorial this week in Washington D.C. He not only invoked the legacy of King but he also spoke favorably of the Occupy Wall Street movement and said King would support it. Yes, of course, King would back the cause. However, despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize, Obama hasn’t shown any willingness to address King’s triple evils of “war, economic exploitation and racism.” These also happen to be similar concerns for many in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Obama should, however, be careful about who and what he praises because the Occupy movement is expanding and Dr. King’s final campaign was going to bring the revolution close to home. He said, “We’ve got to camp in – put our tents in front of the White House…America will have many many days, but they will be full of trouble. There will be no rest, there will be no tranquility in this country until the nation comes to terms with our problem.”
On Dr. King’s birthday, Jan. 15th 1968 – which was sadly to be his last – he was organizing with a multi-racial coalition of Native Americans, Chicanos, Appalachian whites and urban black people to start an encampment in Washington D.C. that would be a massive “nonviolent army” which would “cripple the operation of an oppressive society.” By 1968, King’s earlier emphasis on civil rights had evolved into a revolutionary stance against capitalism, the Vietnam War, U.S. Imperialism and poverty. Leading tens of thousands of poor people, activists, clergy and concerned citizens to camp in D.C. was a “kind of last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.” He even suggested to his staff that after a few days they could call in the peace movements and “try and close down the Pentagon.” King meant business. The encampment would have to be “as dramatic, as dislocative, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying life or property.” He talked about clogging the roads, shutting down bridges and making the “city not function anymore.” The country that he loved so much had strayed so far from its ideals that he said, “We’ve got to go for broke this time…they aren’t going to run me out of Washington.”
On Thursday, Sept. 29th over 1,000 people marched in San Francisco to voice their frustration against the corrupt financial institutions that have been harming the lives of millions. It was the latest effort in what is a quickly spreading movement. While New York is the largest, there are Occupy movements cropping up in every city – Chicago, Miami, Seattle, LA, Boston and Reno just to name a few.
For those who missed it, the SF march was energetic and filled with passionate, yet frustrated voices. Marching from the former Bank of America headquarters on California street, the group staged a massive picket in front of Charles Schwab. Some entered the lobby while many more tried to push their way in. One protester stood inside with a sign that said “revolution is beautiful.”
After leaving a lasting impression at Charles Schwab the group headed to Chase bank on Market street. Six people were able to get inside the bank and do a sit in, while others filled the entry way lobby in support. The police prevented any more people from entering the bank. Outside, the massive crowd cheered for those inside, “Let our people go, arrest the CEO.” Life sized cardboard images of Chase CEO Jamie Dimon were set against the backdrop of the bank. All six members inside were arrested and cited and then released out a side entrance to cheers and excitement from the crowd.
It takes a special type of warrior to drop bombs on someone. You have to be able to cultivate a certain amount of mental clarity, presence, focus and inner calm. That’s why for some, yoga is the perfect tool to help get the job done.
In August, 2006 Fit Yoga Magazine featured on their front cover a picture of two naval aviators practicing yoga on a battleship. What pose were they in? Of course Virabadrasana 2, aka warrior pose. At the time even the editor of magazine admitted that it was a “little shocking,” but on second glance she realized that “on their faces their serene smiles relayed a sense of inner calm.”
According to Retired Adm. Tom Steffens the Navy Seals dig yoga too, “The ability to stay focused on something, whether on breathing or on the yoga practice, and not be drawn off course, that has a lot of connection to the military,” he said. “In our SEAL basic training, there are many things that are yoga-like in nature.” And in March 2011 the Military officially added yoga and “resting” to the required physical training regiment all in the effort to “better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat.”
If you’re not in the Military and don’t have any plans to join up anytime soon, no worries. Just tune to the Pentagon channel’s “Fit For Duty” which is “a show by the military, for the military.” Major Lisa Lourey will teach you all the yoga you need to know to become a highly trained killing machine. It’s my top choice for online asana.
Greta Christina argues that a personal belief in God will make you more likely to harm others and embrace an “extreme, grotesque immorality.”
In her rebuttal to my article “5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion,” (reprinted on Alternet.org) Greta Christina claims that I’ve reproduced religious privilege and oppression. How? Because I used the word “myth” and associated it with atheists. According to Christina by using the word myth (which I could easily interchange in this case with “have wrong,” or “incorrect”) I’m in the same category as all of those people who attack atheists with harmful slurs. “Bigoted myths about atheists abound — myths that we’re amoral, selfish, hateful, despairing, close-minded, nihilistic, arrogant, intolerant, forcing our lack of belief on others, etc. — and many of us experience real discrimination as a result.” Thus, by me calling Christina’s claim that all religions are equally crazy a myth I am somehow in the same boat as someone who hates and oppresses atheists. While myth may not be the grammatically correct word I’m uncertain as to how my article would cease to be oppressive if I had merely used “have wrong” or “wrong belief” instead of myth. Again, the substance of what I wrote is not an issue for her. Rather it’s one word, myth. Her logic entails that if I called Malcolm X’s early belief that all white people are devils a myth then I am supporting or contributing to all racist and white supremacist myths about black people. I don’t follow this line of thinking.
I am deeply concerned about religious privilege and the dehumanization of atheists. I recently wrote an article “If I Were an Atheist I Wouldn’t Trust the Religious Either” describing the problematic nature of trying to incorporate atheists into interfaith work. I’ve also previously written how religious people need to defend atheists against attack and dehumanization. In using the word myth it was synonymous with untruth or incorrect. It is possible for atheists or anyone else to believe wrong things about religion. Pointing this out is not oppressive or discriminatory. Otherwise all religious people must remain silent and not critique atheists. Nor is using the term myth to describe a wrong belief. Maybe it isn’t the best choice of words or the most grammatically correct, but myth isn’t a dirty word nor does saying the word invoke all other awful myths associated with any given category. We use it everyday very commonly despite it perhaps not being the accurate choice of word at the time.
The vast majority of religious and spiritual people don’t really care about atheists and that’s why if I were an atheist I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw a Bible. At worst, many religious people and their associated institutions are responsible for a long history of dehumanizing atheists. A most recent example is that of the atheist senior high school student Damon Fowler. After objecting to the illegal publicly sponsored prayer scheduled for his graduation ceremony he was “hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community; publicly demeaned by one of his teachers; physically threatened; and thrown out by his parents, who cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and threw his belongings onto the front porch.” At best, progressive religious organizations may include articles from authors that are atheist, advance viewpoints that are humanistic or attempt to engage atheists in interfaith work. This may be stepping in the right direction but it should be viewed for what it is; tokenism. Until the real-life social and political struggles that atheists face are taken up by religious and spiritual people in a serious manner I doubt any genuine progress will be made.
While there are some atheists who are willing to work under the rubric of an interfaith movement and other atheists who identify as religious such as Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists it seems that many atheists don’t want to integrate into religion. Can you blame them? Why would these atheists want to integrate into the very thing they feel is oppressing them? Yes, common goals of challenging religious fundamentalism and community service can be shared by both groups but why does it have to be done under the guise of religion as interfaith organizing?
Prominent atheist and scientist PZ Myers has written a rebuttal called “Myth-bustin’ bad arguments about atheism” to my article “5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion.” I respond to his criticism below but I must say it seems he largely misunderstood the points I was making. I’m not saying this just to try and prime my audience, but I found myself mostly answering to claims that I’ve never made.
I do appreciate the discussion and hope that it spurs healthy debate. We need more dialogue and engagement with these very important issues. His comments are in blue.
Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism.Scofield has completely missed the point. Liberal religion isn’t blamed for promoting illiberalism, it’s guilty of promoting religion. Nobody is arguing that the antithesis is responsible for the thesis, but that liberal religion and extremist religion hold something in common: the abdication of reason in favor of faith. They are both philosophies that undermine critical thinking. And without that safeguard of demanding reasonable evidence for propositions, they’re left vulnerable to bad ideas.
PZ Myers proves my point exactly and simultaneously points out his own hypocrisy.
Despite their emphasis on reason, evidence and a desire to see through false truth claims, many atheists hold surprisingly ill-informed beliefs about religion. Many of these myths go unquestioned simply because they serve the purpose of discrediting religion at large. They allow for the construction of a straw man i.e. a distorted and simplistic representation of religion which can be easily attacked, summarily dismissed and ridiculed. Others who genuinely believe these false claims merely have a limited understanding of the ideas involved and have never thoroughly examined them. But, myths are myths and they should be acknowledged for what they are.
I’m not saying that atheists aren’t knowledgeable when it comes to religion. To the contrary, atheists in general know more about the particularities of religion than most religious people do. A recent study confirmed it. I have no doubt that they can rattle off all of the myths, falsities, fanciful claims, dangerous ideas and barbarous actions committed by the religious. It makes sense as a targeted group will generally know more about the dominant group than the other way around. But of course simply knowing more than other religious people about their traditions doesn’t preclude holding to false beliefs of their own.
There are certainly more than five myths about religion that are perpetuated by some atheists (and in some cases the religious). However, I’ve chosen what I feel to be the most significant false claims made by atheists to help provide a more accurate understanding of religion and to pave the groundwork for dialogue between these seemingly two opposing groups.