"My friends joke that I am a coconut: brown on the outside, but white on the inside." - Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist's Handbook.

I wrote a post fairly recently for the Rationalist Association's blog (soon set to be in New Humanist magazine too) entitled 'Does Humanism have a demographic problem?'. In it, I put forward the idea that organised humanism may experience a turnout perhaps unrepresentative of the total population of humanists. At the lectures that the British Humanist Association provide, for example, the audiences tend to be, on the whole, rather white and rather middle-class, and I think that this is a problem. I understand that this tendency is an issue shared by many membership organisations in the UK; but I can't help but feel that it needs to be more vocally addressed in humanism's case, as an idea or belief should have no racial or income-based requirements (even if they are unintentional or accidental).

The article focused more on the 'class' side of things though, simply because Alom Shaha himself had provided me with enough quotable material to 'leave it at that' when it came to race - but here I will go into more detail of my own on the topic.

The first thing I wish to say is that I think it would be insidious to suggest that skin colour dictates what ideas a person can/cannot hold. Religious identity is far too often conflated with cultural identity, and assumptions of how a person should think and behave based on their heritage result inevitably from this. With it, for example, comes the idea that to be an Atheist is to potentially betray one's background - after all, Atheism is just for white people, no?

Wrong. It's a disgusting, divisive, damaging and ultimately patronising charge, that suggestion. That a person's genes and chance place of upbringing would dictate what they are allowed to think is ridiculous. Atheism is not just an idea of 'the West' or a pastime reserved for old white men, it's 'universal'. Lacking belief in a God (or gods) is no more bound by race as liking a particular genre of music is.

Sure, someone living in a more-developed European country has a higher ch..., but that's only because those countries tend to be more 'progressive' and secular themselves. It has nothing to do with skin colour, but people make this weak link, perhaps subconsciously, time and time again.

The irony of it, as I remember Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe mentioning at an event named 'Breaking the Taboo of Atheism in Black Communities' a while back, is that it is the developing world - largely non-white - which needs enlightenment the most. Many people suffer because of religious superstitions, from those accused of witchcraft to homosexuals, and it is them who would most benefit from a lack of said delusions. To call those atrocities but an aspect of 'their culture' is horrendously arrogant, and part of the problem.

From the little 'coconut' jokes to a more frank, as I have previously heard, "Atheism is for white people", non-belief is so wrongly portrayed as something racial. It's absurd. And like most absurdities, it does harm.

It's harder for non-white Atheists to 'come out' because of it, it stifles human progress, and it's deeply insulting. Which is precisely why Mr Igwe so praised the London Black Atheists group who organised the talk.

"We need this space!" he so often proclaimed - and he was right.

Carnun :P

(Reposted from 'The Ramblings of a Young Atheist' by the Author.)

Views: 704

Tags: Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Islam, Religion, Shaha, YAH

Comment by Arcus on May 8, 2013 at 3:30pm

I'm fairly certain Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Indians aren't considered white, yet I do believe quite a few of them are atheist. In fact, there are more non-white atheists than white ones in the world.

Comment by Carnun Marcus-Page on May 8, 2013 at 3:49pm

@Arcus: Indeed, as with most things...

It's just that when you look the most 'influential'/'outspoken' Atheists, they're mostly wealthy, white men (at least in the part of the world I'm familiar with) - so that becomes the stereotype sadly :/

Whether or not the statistics disagree, that fact can be used as the basis of petty insults against non-white non-believers...

Comment by Unseen on May 8, 2013 at 5:56pm

A lot of the poor, oppressed, and underprivileged are nonwhite, and to a degree religion is part of the reason, because (not always) it can tell them that, whatever their predicament, it's the one they deserve and brought on themselves. They got there because of who they are, not due to forces arranged against them. It helps them justify doing nothing to improve their lot, in other words. 

Also, there is a phenomenon at work in the black neighborhoods in the United States according to which black youth, used to being told in various ways, subtle and not so subtle, that they are inferior to whites, adopt the stance that mainstream success "isn't cool...it's whitey's thing." 

We need to work on making nonwhites feel welcome and in helping them feel they are not inferior people even if the position they are in might make it feel that way.

Comment by Carnun Marcus-Page on May 8, 2013 at 6:09pm


Absolutely - part of the problem Leo referred to. He mentioned how we need to set up secular schools in Africa and wherever else it's needed because the only way out of the problem is to 'educate, educate, educate', as he puts it. In places, the church is the only provider of 'education', meanwhile looking after the richest in Africa: the religious leaders who feed off of donations from the impoverished whose children are kept ignorant in the same schools (or in none at all). It's a deadly cycle.

We really do...

Comment by Dan on May 8, 2013 at 7:55pm

Comment by Unseen on May 9, 2013 at 10:36am

I see I made several confusing errors in my prior post, since deleted, so I'm providing the proofread and edited version here:

Dark skin is predominantly dominant.

Skin color is a complex trait and not accurately described in purely dominant/recessive terms the way other traits can, like handedness. In other words, skin colors can blend.

Someday, everyone will be mocha brown.

Comment by Unseen on May 9, 2013 at 10:37am


My prediction is based on the degree of mobility that exists today. In the past, races remained relatively "pure" merely because of lack of interbreeding. Today, intermarriage is common and it's hard not to notice that skin colors do tend to mix in such cases.

Even if, in the future, we can manipulate skin color, I really can't think why most people would want to avail themselves of it.

Comment by Alan C on May 9, 2013 at 12:51pm

I have to say that I'm not sure I understand the premise here.

In Asia most atheists will be Asian.  In the predominantly black areas of Africa, most atheists will be black.  Are we arguing that in the USA and the UK that most atheists are white?  In that case we should probably argue that most solicitors are white, most doctors are white, most teachers are white, most university lecturers are white, most engineers are white, most scientists are white, etc, etc.

The white middle and upper class are the most likely to be aware of the opportunities and given the encouragement and teaching to achieve their goals and ambitions.  Ergo, once anyone has received the level of teaching (from the teachers and lecturers mentioned above) to achieve those goals they are the least likely to believe in a god.

Conversely the blacks and Asians are more likely to be more closely controlled by religious leaders and god fearing parents and prevented from obtaining the type of education that encourages the questioning of faith.  Only the changing of educational standards will eventually change the balance of belief/knowledge, and the religious leaders are fighting hard so as not to relinquish their power.

I recently had a conversation with a well educated Sikh who is a chartered building surveyor.  He is not devout, does not read all the Sikh scriptures but he believes in the mystical and hates gays as they are 'not natural.'  When I told him that homosexuality is quite common in the animal kingdom he did not believe me.  He did however google it that night and apologised to me the next day, totally amazed that he did not know about that.  I also told him about the James Randi Education Foundation and he looked that up as well and was equally dumbfounded that no one had ever taken the $1M on offer.  He is just a product of his upbringing, believing because that he has been taught since birth.

Comment by Unseen on May 9, 2013 at 1:43pm

n Asia most atheists will be Asian.  In the predominantly black areas of Africa, most atheists will be black.  Are we arguing that in the USA and the UK that most atheists are white?  In that case we should probably argue that most solicitors are white, most doctors are white, most teachers are white, most university lecturers are white, most engineers are white, most scientists are white, etc, etc.

I'm pretty sure the point is that the proportion of nonwhites in the atheist community is far lower than the proportion of nonwhites in the general population. Yes, in the US, UK, and other countries with a lot of racial diversity.

Comment by Dave Schofield on May 9, 2013 at 4:13pm

White people spent the nineteenth century spreading Christianity to the developing countries, along with disease and abuse and murder.  Atheism - if there is a demographic tilt - should take up the baton and deploy missionaries to descend on villages around the world spreading the Good News.  Except obviously without the rape, murder and smallpox. ;)


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