But I’m Just Criticizing Religion

This seems to be a rallying cry for many atheists, particularly those who criticize Islam. And I do think that most really believe that’s all they’re doing, and aren’t consciously singling Muslims out due to racial bias. However, as I argued in my last post, reality is a bit more complicated than this assertion portrays, and I’m going to look at two historical examples of religiously and racially motivated prejudice to illustrate why I believe this is true.

Typical caveat: as a white woman, neither prejudice has affected me personally, nor has Islamophobia. Readers with first hand experience, please do correct me if I get something wrong.

Anti-Semitism

Historically, anti-Semitism has manifested itself in dual ways: racial prejudice and religious prejudice. Take, for example, the Inquisition. Europe’s Catholic rulers drove out the Muslim Moors while also targeting its minority Jewish population–and this wasn’t just due to religion. To European Catholics, Jewishness, and the Jewish religion, were inextricably connected to blood. It’s why inquisitors like the infamous St. John of Capistrano targeted even conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity in order to escape persecution and death. Christianity was measured by blood, and not just by confession. In Spain, inquisitors believed in a concept called limpieza de sangre, or cleanliness of blood. Blood purity, in case the white supremacist connotations weren’t clear enough. Your status as a good Catholic depended on how many Catholic ancestors you could claim. Conversos, obviously, couldn’t claim very many. They were of impure blood. And they died for it.

I think you can also see echoes of limpieza de sangre in Hitler’s Final Solution. The rise of the Nazi Party was accompanied by laws that specifically targeted and forbade the religious practices of Germany’s Jewish community. Once again, religious prejudice was tied to racial prejudice–and we know what happened in the Third Reich.

Japanese Internment Camps

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans became the targets of an American government intent on rooting out foreign interlopers. Many Americans viewed their Japanese neighbors as subhuman, alien figures with allegiances to a foreign power–and religion played a role. Japanese identity, like Jewish identity, was actively characterized as a threat to American sovereignty not only because of its racial distinctiveness, but due to its association with Shintoism. According to many supporters of Japanese internment, Shintoism compelled Japanese Americans to obey the Emperor over the American government and to subjugate their non-Japanese neighbors.

That might sound familiar.

As a direct result of these sentiments, the American government interned over 110,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor until the end of World War II.

So Why Is This Relevant?

When a ruling class targets a minority class, it’s never just about religion. Religious and racial prejudice have historically walked hand in hand. I’ve been repeatedly accused of trying to argue that we can never criticize religion, and I want to make it clear that this is not a thing I have ever or will ever argue. Rather, I’m arguing that our critiques need to be historically informed. We need to understand and acknowledge that religious prejudice exists and that it is linked to racial prejudice. We need to understand the consequences of reducing a community to a monolithically barbaric Other.

When white liberals say that the hijab is intrinsically misogynist, that’s what they’re doing. They are calling this symbol, which is not their symbol, which is, for better or worse, associated with a racial identity they do not share, backwards. They have declared open season on anyone who wears it. They have erased an individual’s specific relationship to this symbol and imposed their own meaning upon it and make no mistake, that is a form of cultural violence. That remains true when they attack a white convert for adopting it; we are delusional if we don’t believe there’s a racial component to that. How could a free white woman prefer the sexism of brown men? 

If we know our history, then we should know the consequences of cultural violence. This doesn’t mean we become cultural relativists. We can say unequivocally that female genital mutilation, or blasphemy laws, or other forms of oppression, are wrong and should be eliminated. But the roots of these laws are not to be found in religion but in something far more banal and universal: human nature. They are what happens when privilege goes unchecked and power is corrupted. This is not a religious problem. It is a human problem. And so it is absurd to assert that the hijab, as a religious symbol, represents a unique injustice unless it is always accompanied by oppressive practices. Of course, this is not the case.

It is convenient to characterize Islam as particularly violent and oppressive, but it’s not true. It wasn’t true when Catholic Christians, and later the Nazi Party, attacked Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t true when the American government attacked Japanese Americans and Shintoism. Lazy generalizations have profound consequences for those most affected by them. We need to remember that when we’re “just criticizing religion.”

Islamophobia Is Real And You Should Care

My Muslim readers are, no doubt, shaking their heads at such an obvious title–and it’s an understandable reaction.

Many of my secular readers seem to be another matter.

Over the course of my engagement with the organized secularist movement in the US, I’ve seen a popular refusal to believe that a phenomenon called Islamophobia exists. While I don’t mean to set myself up as the Grand Arbiter of All Things Social Justice, I don’t think my claim to be an activist would mean very much if I didn’t address this. Let me be clear about a few things: I approach this subject from a postcolonial perspective. I’m not a secularist, as I’ve already said. And from a postcolonial perspective I think it is clear that not only does Islamophobia exists, it’s rooted in racism. Further, I want to argue that if you’re an atheist, you should not only acknowledge Islamophobia’s existence, you should combat it. Unless, of course, you’re not concerned when a minority belief community is attacked by other, more mainstream communities–and if that’s true, I invite you to engage in some self-reflection.

I’ve heard, repeatedly, that it’s acceptable to criticize Islam because it’s a religion, not a race. On the surface of things this is technically true. But dig deeper and you’ll find the issue is far more complex than many secularist soundbites allow. Islamic belief and practice is tied to ethnic identity. It’s no coincidence that far-right groups like the English Defence League mix a fair bit of racism in with their Islam-bashing. Islamophobia is at its root a fear of the Other, a reaction to minority, typically migrant communities. When you campaign to ban the hijab from public spaces, as the Parti Quebecois has proposed, you are further alienating an already marginalized community. This isn’t made less racist simply by claiming the hijab is oppressive-over the protestations of the women who wear it, women directly affected by it in ways that secularists are not.

This approach to secularism very clearly prioritizes one set of cultural values over another. But wait! secularists cry, we should do this or else we’re cultural relativists who can’t condemn stoning or blasphemy laws or female genital mutilation.

That’s not true either. Sharia, and the broader field of Islamic jurisprudence, is a complex thing. It’s not static. It can be interpreted in egalitarian ways as well as regressive ways. You can oppose stoning, or blasphemy laws, or female genital mutilation without condemning Islam because these practices are not necessarily Islamic practices.

For years, I’ve volunteered with a group called Femin Ijtihad. FI uses Islamic law in defence of women’s rights, relying on the concept of ijtihad or innovative legal reasoning to argue against patriarchal abuses of the faith. To some, this might be accomodationism. To me, it’s a pragmatic approach to one of the most pressing development issues of our era: gender inequality. In 2012, I organized a research project with two of my colleagues from Femin Ijtihad. Our purpose was to examine the affects of revolution on women’s political participation in Libya. When we asked them about the challenges they faced campaigning for women’s rights in the new, allegedly democratic Libya our sources were very clear: the secularists were often just as sexist as the Islamists, and as a result, women’s issues received short shrift.

Across the Arab world, women, including observant women, have been at the forefront of revolutionary change. It’s absurd, I think, to look at this and then attempt to argue that Islam itself is what holds women back, or that women couldn’t possibly interpret their faith in a way that would actually encourage them to participate in the political process.

And yet, we hear that Islam oppresses women.

People oppress women.

Atheist people oppress women. Christian people oppress women. Jewish people oppress women. No one has a monopoly on sexism. This fact is so obvious that to me that I believe it’s unquestionable that opposition to Islam is rooted in bigotry.

Take the outcry over Universities UK’s alleged support for gender segregation, after it published a report that stated universities hosting religious speakers could separate men and women to suit the speaker’s beliefs. The report used the example of an Ultra-Orthodox speaker, but from what I have seen, secularist critics looked past this to their favorite scapegoat, Islam–not that I think anti-Semitism would be a preferable alternative.

Before anyone asks: I don’t think religious speakers should be able to force men and women to sit separately. At the same time, I do think that religious students should have the option to sit separately if they choose. And yet we have secularist figures like Maryam Namazie organizing literal posses to force ‘segregated’ students apart. If students have been forcibly segregated, she might have a point, but I am concerned that students who voluntarily separate will also be targeted. In fact, this has already happened, and it has not been condemned by secularists.

And that’s mild stuff compared to Islamophobic hate crimes, in the UK and the US, too. From mosque vandalization to a shooting rampage at a Sikh gurdwara (Sikhs are often mistakenly targeted as Muslims because they wear turbans), it’s obvious that Islamophobia exists and can have deadly consequences. The Southern Poverty Law Center has speculated that rates of these crimes remain high due to anti-sharia rhetoric. Unfortunately, that rhetoric is produced by the left as well as the right.

In the UK, the murder of a soldier by an Islamist extremist provoked mass demonstrations by the English Defence League and a rash of mosque vandalizations–even the racially motivated murder of an elderly Muslim man.

Words have power. And it’s disingenuous to pretend that they cannot convey bigotry if they’re targeted at a religion. We don’t privilege all religions equally in the West; it’s a lasting legacy of colonialism. You cannot reasonably claim that attacking Islam is the same as attacking Christianity, because attacks on Islam occur within a specific social and historical context that cannot be extended to Christianity.

Around the world, atheists face severe consequences for their beliefs. We can all agree that’s injustice. But we should also be able to agree that it’s an injustice when anyone is persecuted for their beliefs.

For these reasons, I think it’s time more secularists acknowledge the existence of Islamophobia, and address it in their own communities.

This Is Not A Discussion

This post began life as a pensive reflection on my life as a homeschool apostate. I’ll be blunt: I’m too angry to write that post. I spend so much time trying to separate myself from extremism and militancy that it’s personally frustrating to be so stymied by anger now. But that is where I find myself.

I am furious with homeschool parents who, for days, have been telling me that I’m just bitter: a barely competent child whose rage can be invalidated and debased as ‘lashing out.’

I am weary of Christian patriarchs like Chris Jeub who feel obligated to repeatedly insert themselves into the discussions emerging from our stories of homeschool abuse. This week, Jeub hastened to assure his fellow homeschoolers that we “apostates” haven’t really abandoned the faith; that we’re just asking questions. In doing so, he reduced our entire movement to a monolith more palatable to his fundamentalist audience. It didn’t matter that many of us, like myself, have abandoned the faith and are happy for it. But we’re here, patriarchs, and we’re not going anywhere, so you might as well admit we exist.

Jeub’s post is so distressing to me because I see it as a ploy to retain some control of the narrative we’ve tried to produce. Let me be very clear: this story is not about Chris Jeub. It’s not about any patriarch, for that matter. It is about us. Don’t you dare re-center this around yourselves.

It is time for you to sit down and pass the mike. The guinea pigs are talking.

You had your chance to run your social experiment. Now the results are in and patriarchs, it doesn’t look good for you. You deliberately created a cultural hierarchy that enshrined your privilege as divine right. The people you’ve oppressed for decades are trying to speak now, and every time we make a sound you drown us out.

I am not looking for a conversation. I think the time for conversation has passed, if it ever existed at all. If you’re not willing to discard Christian patriarchy completely, to acknowledge the horrifying damage it wreaks on those rendered powerless by it, then you are not my conversation partner: you are the enemy in my fight for liberation. If you are not willing to stop viewing your children as property to be controlled, there is no discussion to be had.

Moreover: I think it actually endangers the fight against Christian patriarchy to view its proponents as conversation partners. They actively perpetuate oppression, and I don’t see it as my responsibility to train them in the ways of allyship. Their voices have been so dominant for so long that I believe it will be impossible to make ourselves heard as long as they’re still speaking. There have been calls for conversation. But conversation is only really possible if both partners are operating as equal, and those of us who left Christian patriarchy aren’t yet equal to those who perpetuate it.

Some day, yes, that might change. But in order for that change to occur, Christian patriarchs are going to have to recognize that it’s not their turn to speak. They’re going to have to cede power first.

Setting the Boundaries

Revelations that Doug Phillips of Vision Forum had a long-term affair, likely with a much younger woman who worked for his family without pay, have revived crucial interest in Christian patriarchy’s attitude toward relationships and consent. Phillips isn’t a mainstream figure; he’s a proponent of the Quiverfull movement who doesn’t think women should vote. He’s also a figurehead in the so-called Stay at Home Daughter Movement, which encourages young women to forsake higher education and careers in order to remain at home, under their fathers’ “protection.”

Obviously, that protection didn’t extend to Phillips’ young victim–and I use “victim” quite deliberately here. I agree with Julie Anne Smith of Spiritual Sounding Board that the Christian patriarchy movement grooms young women for abuse, consciously or not, by brainwashing them into compliance and encouraging them to forgo developing skills necessary for independent lives.  There is a very clear power imbalance present, even in relationships between adults of the same age, because of an overwhelming emphasis on male dominion. I believe that Phillips knew exactly what he was doing. I think he sought this woman out at a young age specifically because of her vulnerability. I think this a.) because that’s how predators work and b.) because the movement idolizes regressive gender roles.

Take the infamous Elsie Dinsmore series. Though they stopped selling the series this year, for fifteen years Vision Forum pushed the books as a wholesome alternative to worldly fiction for girls and formerly ran an essay contest based on the series. Unfortunately, Vision Forum has removed that page from its site and I can only find a cached pdf copy that doesn’t link to the full essays. You’ll have to trust my memory instead. I read the essays while still in college and had to restrain myself from picking up my lumbering school-issued PC and throwing it across the room after reading essay after essay by girls who credited the Dinsmore books for encouraging them to forgo a college education.

The series, which is available on Project Gutenburg if you feel like torturing yourself, stars Elsie Dinsmore and lauds her submission to her physically abusive father and her eventual marriage to Mr. Travilla, one of her father’s friends. Dinsmore is eight in the first book, which also features this stupendous quote from Travilla: “He (Elsie’s father) is not to take you away. I have made a bargain with him to let me keep you . . . call me papa in the future.” And so she did.

This is Vision Forum’s approach to romance. This is what they promote to their stay at home daughters. That’s why I, like Julie Anne, don’t really believe Phillips’ victim consented to the relationship. The environment in which it occurred is intrinsically coercive.

I was not a stay at home daughter. My parents had the sense to encourage me to attend college and pursue a career of my choice. But even their version of soft patriarchy granted my father a position of unreasonable power in our household and condemned me to a lifetime of submission to men.

As a college student, I became the victim of an attempted rape, the culmination of an abusive, controlling relationship. It’s something I’ve written about before on this blog, and while I don’t enjoy writing about it, I will when I think my experience is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s relevant again. You see, Christian patriarchy–even soft patriarchy– doesn’t talk about consent. It doesn’t talk about relationship abuse. It encourages men to control women, and it expects women to submit to that control. And even though I was a non-theist and a feminist by the time I survived the attack, I blamed myself for what happened. I provoked it. I’d worn pajamas around a man, and just the year before, our student chaplain had warned women that wearing pajamas around men made them think about sex. And instead of going to the police when it happened, I continued to submit.

It’s incredible, really, how even the most absurd beliefs can embed themselves inside your psyche and stay there.

I am not that girl any longer. I’m older, wiser, and a bit tougher. I suppose that’s the up side of surviving something like that. You don’t make it unless you become stronger than you were, and I do not believe I’d submit to that abuse now. I think that’s partially because I know my real enemy: Christian patriarchy, the system that had shaped me and my attacker, too.

If the Christian church is concerned about abuse, it will have to divorce itself from patriarchy in all its incarnations. It’s too late for me, and for Phillips’ victim, and for many, many others, but it’s not too late to protect the women and girls whose faith still compels them to participate in Christian community.

Interfaith Activism: Pros and Cons

I’ve written about why I don’t consider myself a secular activist. I do consider myself an interfaith activist, among other things, and I think it’s important to explain why.

First, let me preface with some background: As an ex-fundamentalist, my interactions with Christianity have been overwhelmingly negative. I found peace outside the confines of the church. Interfaith activism isn’t a natural fit for me, but I value it because I think it has the potential to thwart fundamentalism. Fundamentalists avoid other points of view. They have to, because different perspectives–even different interpretations of the same religion–are considered blasphemous. It’s sin by association. You’re supposed to be in the world, not of it. 

I think that atheism is often subject to the same problems. If blasphemy’s defined as a violation of certain established standards, then the evangelistic approach to atheism that I’ve criticized in previous posts is just as limited as its religious counterpart. It’s just as sectarian, and for this reason, I think it ought to be avoided. 

So I see interfaith activism is a potential antidote to sectarianism, and in this post, I’m going to break down what I see as the positives and negatives of participation in this field. Full disclosure: I interned with the Three Faiths Forum (3FF) in London, England as an open atheist, so my perspective on the subject is influenced by 3FF’s approach to interfaith work. 

Religious Literacy

Fellow atheists, I know you love to cite the Pew study showing that we’re more religiously literate than the religious themselves. But keep in mind that this study measured religious literacy by a limited standard. Religious literacy is more than understanding the facts of a religious system; it should encompass an understanding of a believer’s emotional connection to the faith. What does faith really mean? How does it influence a person’s daily life? The answers to these questions won’t be found in encyclopedia entries, but in dialogue. I think it’s impossible to truly understand what faith means to the believer simply from reading about it. It’s necessary to see it in action.

Conversely, the same applies to non-theism. What does humanism mean to an individual humanist? That answer is going to vary from person to person, and unless a believer is exposed that variance, it’s easy for them to reduce humanism, or atheism, or any other non-theist perspective to a monolithic entity. We want to move past stereotypes and stigma. Interfaith activism is a way to do that. 

Anti-extremism

Neither side of the culture war is free from extremism. It’s certainly true that in the United States, religious extremists have thus far proven themselves more prone to physical violence. As a counterpoint, though, I’d like to remind everyone that certain elements within atheism have no problem making regular death and rape threats to those they believe are corrupting the movement. I don’t know if that trend will escalate into physical violence. I would be surprised if it didn’t. And although I can’t reasonably speculate as to when or why it would happen, I think the problem should be noted.

Extremists are ideological purists, and ideological purists can be dangerous. Interfaith work is a threat to ideological purity. It’s messy, challenging activism. You’ll be forced to confront your stereotypes of the Other, and so will your fellow activists. The point is to develop a more nuanced, more realistic perspective on how other people practice belief or non-belief. And while I don’t think that interfaith activism alone is capable of eliminating extremism, I think it helps. 

Limitations

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a feminist. Gender equality is a non-negotiable issue to me. If your belief system does not make equal space for women, I don’t think it deserves my respect, and the same is true for traditions that are anti-gay. I also don’t think it’s my responsibility to educate the privileged about marginalization. 

Ideally, interfaith settings should establish clear parameters for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. A Christian fundamentalist shouldn’t show up and demand I quit my job and content myself with housework, and I don’t think that an evangelistic atheist should show up and demand religious people deconvert. There can be some use to confronting bigoted beliefs directly, but you should do this if, and only if, you feel you have the emotional energy to do it. There have to be limits on the accommodations afforded to any one belief system, and those accommodations should never come at the cost of dehumanizing someone who doesn’t share those beliefs.

On a final note: I value interfaith activism because I live in an interfaith world. My parents are Christians. I have Christian friends and Muslim friends, Buddhist friends and Pagan friends. And I like that. That’s the sort of world my upbringing denied. I’m a better person for regularly interacting with different beliefs and perspectives. That interaction continually forces me to interrogate my own beliefs, and after twenty-one years in fundamentalism, that’s a welcome change. I do not ever want to feel that complacent again. And I want to conduct my life in a way that makes space for experiences that are different from my own. 

Dear Eric Fromm

Thank you for having the courage I lacked at your age.

Northwest Christian University isn’t as strict as my own alma mater, Cedarville, and I’m glad you won’t be expelled for your views. But you’re now a visible minority on a small and overwhelmingly Christian campus, and that means you’re in for a difficult time. You already know that, I’m sure, because this is not a decision anyone makes lightly. You wrote that you’re already the subject of rumors, and after this, you’ll probably lose more friends. But then, you’ve probably been losing friends ever since you started asking questions.

By the time I lost my religion, I’d already spent several years fending off harassment and abuse from classmates and faculty for political views only slightly to the left of center. There were always rumors about my faith, too, and I hated that. Sometimes I think I held onto Christianity for as long as I did just to spite everyone who called me a heretic.

Spite isn’t a particularly good reason to identify as anything, Christian or otherwise, so kudos for making a different choice. You were honest in public, itself a radical act. You used your position as student body president for good. And because of that, Northwest’s non-Christian students finally have representation on campus.

I often hear people, atheist people, mainstream people, characterize anyone who attends Christian college as ignorant and backwards. I hope that because of what you’ve done, people will actually listen when I tell them that these campuses are more diverse than they think. There were atheists at my college, too. There were Christians with doubts and questions.  And we stay at these schools for so many reasons. I stayed out of fear: I would have been expelled immediately and I knew I couldn’t count on my family for support at the time. That’s such a common story, and even though yours is different, I want you to know how much you’ve helped marginalized students at colleges like ours.

You’ve showed them that it’s ok.

You’re an atheist and your world didn’t end. There was no lightning bolt. You’ve lost some friends and you’re the target of rumors, but you have supporters, too, and you’ll live to fight another day.  I didn’t have that example. I wish I had, because my years at Cedarville wouldn’t have been nearly as lonely as they were. At these schools, doubt’s a fight you have with yourself, not a conversation you share with other people.

Fundamentalism and evangelicalism both encourage followers to compartmentalize themselves. The Christian isn’t really a whole person; she’s continually at war with her ‘sin nature,’ an aspect of the human condition that she can’t hope to discard. Even after salvation, this war with the sin nature continues, trapping the Christian into a dual identity. All my questions, all my objections and concerns, got subsumed into this sin nature, so I fought them. I awarded my ‘sin nature’ an almost supernatural strength and I wrestled with it like Isaac wrestled with God. And also like Isaac, I lost my wrestling match. Doubt pinned me, and when I finally faced it, I realized that I’d just been fighting myself all along.

I don’t think this is something that anyone should ever have to experience on their own, and yet so many of us do because we’re convinced that we’re alone.

So I’ll close with a challenge: keep using your position for good. Be a safe person for your fellow students. When they come to you with their stories, listen. Provide practical, reasonable support, and let them come to their own conclusions. You might be the first person who’s ever treated their questions with respect.

And thanks again for doing what so many of us couldn’t.

So Much For Personhood

For a brief but glorious moment this afternoon, I had faith in our democratic process.

I owe Michael Farris for this moment. I owe Michael Farris and the movement he represents lots of things, none of them good, so I’ll take this as my due. And in any case, it came at his expense. Today, Farris appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to explain exactly why they should not ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). And in response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee destroyed him.

Well, most of them.  Leave it to Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to be Michael Farris’ strongest ally.

Fortunately, most of the members saw through Farris’ fear-mongering. According to Farris (and, on this count, Corker) ratification of the treaty would subject the United States to foreign law, and in a neat trick, would somehow simultaneously expand the powers of the federal government to a dangerous degree. Farris views this as a threat to the rights of homeschooling parents, and via HSLDA he’s assured them that the treaty would deprive them of decision-making rights for their children.

This is not actually true, as Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his colleagues pointed out. The UNCRPD is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which as the name suggests is American and it’s been law since 1990. Ratification of the UNCRPD would therefore not impact federal law; it’s a symbolic gesture.  Farris tries to get around that by claiming it would impact state laws, and states’ rights. This is also not true, and I’m unclear why a lawyer would make such an obviously flawed argument.  Again,the UNCRPD is based on the ADA.  It does not alter the ADA. The ADA is federal law and no state is exempt from it.

That sinks the sovereignty argument as well. If ratification of the treaty does not actually mandate a change in US law, Farris can hardly claim that passing it would surrender our sovereignty to our new overlords at the United Nations.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Farris thinks the ADA is overreach, too. But that’s not the argument he made before the Senate today. Let me be very clear: the UNCRPD does not represent a new attack on American liberty. If you object to the content of the treaty, then you object to the ADA, and that’s a different discussion altogether.

It’s also possible that, similarly, he rejects the very concept of the United Nations, and would oppose the passage of any international treaty. Again, he didn’t make those arguments today, and it’s not a view that HSLDA has articulated in its campaign against the UNCRPD. Either this is a smokescreen for an ulterior agenda, or he’s remarkably illogical for someone who’s made a career in law.

And about that law career. Senator Menendez will forever be cherished in my memory for reminding the committee that while Farris’ international law degree–the very degree he claims gives him expert status on this subject–might very well be from the University of London, it’s also from a distance learning course.

(I’d like to take this moment to assure everyone that when I say attended the University of London, I’m referring to physical attendance. I sat my physical rear end in physical chairs and physical lecturers taught me postcolonial theory and global policy.)

But it’s not Farris’ specious arguments that bother me, really. I could even ignore his self-portrayal as an expert in international law, or at least laugh at it a little. Michael Farris’ arguments disgust me because I am a person with a disability.

It’s strange to write that out because I don’t really think of myself this way in my mind. People should identify themselves in whichever way is most helpful to them, and it is typically most helpful to me to focus on everything that is not my illness. But the reality is that I have a spectacularly rare genetic blood disorder. When God knit me together in my mother’s womb, his hands must have been shaking.

When I get sick, sicker than a head cold, things tend to go wrong. This actually happened a month ago. I spent five days in the hospital suffering from acute hemolytic crisis, thanks to an infection my body couldn’t quite subdue. Hemolytic crisis is, for the uninitiated, agonizing. Several of my internal organs were inflamed, so I spent most of my hospital stay in a haze of morphine and oxycodone. I didn’t eat for a week because I couldn’t keep anything down. People in hemolytic crisis have trouble breathing. In fact, they have trouble just sitting up. I’m lucky I avoided a blood transfusion.

Usually, I’m well. No exaggeration. No need to treat me like I’m about to break (seriously, don’t do that, I hate that.). I’ve never needed a transfusion, and I’ve never been quite so seriously ill before, but the possibility is always there and that possibility will never go away. The ADA was designed to protect people like me. The UNCRPD recognizes the need to protect people like me everywhere in the world. So when Michael Farris and his allies in the radical right wing argue against it, I get angry.

Only an able-bodied person could argue against this treaty. Only an able-bodied person would have the audacity to appear before a Senate committee with a disabled person in the room (Representative Tammy ‘Badass’ Duckworth, D-Ill) and whine about homeschooling. It’s absurd. To characterize this as manifestation of skewed priorities would be an incredible understatement. It’s really evidence that Michael Farris, famous too for his “pro-life” posturing, fundamentally misunderstands the concept of personhood.

If you care about personhood, you care about persons with disabilities, too. Don’t you dare demand that women carry disabled fetuses to term if you’re going to get up in front of the Senate and tell our elected officials that the disabled don’t deserve global legal protection.

I am not your political prop. I am not your token. Michael Farris, you don’t speak for me. Your obsession with parental rights has trumped what any reasonable person would acknowledge as an obvious need to protect persons with disabilities. But then again, this is HSLDA. We all know that in Farris’ Bizarro World, parental rights trump children’s rights–even when the children are disabled, and might suffer for it.

So much for personhood.

Evangelistic Atheism? No Thanks.

I’m going to try to explain, as clearly as possible, why I react the way I do to the concept of evangelistic atheism. It’s been difficult, deciding exactly how to communicate this, because it involves wading through the muck and mire of my twenty-one years in fundamentalism. But it’s exactly because of my past that I feel ethically obligated to speak out about this approach to atheism.

Simply put: no. You don’t oppose culture war by adopting the religious right’s tactics.

Let me tell you what it’s like to grow up in a culture that prioritizes evangelism.

You’ve been told, from your earliest years, that you have a mission. If you don’t carry out this mission to the best of your abilities then you let your community down–and you let the world down, too, because you’ve allowed them to wallow in terrible ignorance. Reluctance to evangelize is framed as unethical behavior. You’re lucky because you’ve found the Truth! You’ve got good news, so why wouldn’t you share it?

Every social interaction becomes an opportunity for evangelism. It becomes impossible to simply get to know a person for who they are. You’re not permitted to appreciate the differences between their perspective and yours because ultimately, they’re a project. If you establish a relationship, it’s solely for the purpose of changing their mind.

It’s a stifling and dehumanizing process, this project of establishing cultural hegemony. As a child and later as a young adult, I despised this aspect of religious life. I’ve always been opinionated, and I’ve never hesitated to act on my convictions. But there’s something about evangelism specifically that has always troubled me.

I think it’s the implied arrogance. Evangelism is deeply rooted in cultural hierarchy. You can’t evangelize unless you’re convinced, despite your human frailty, that you’ve isolated and quantified the Truth. And by Truth, I mean a comprehensive worldview.

So I experience a visceral reaction when atheists promote evangelism, and this reaction is bolstered by my own research on the subject. I know the history of the missions movement. I know exactly how conducive the evangelistic spirit is to imperialism and therefore, I feel obligated to oppose it wherever I see it. This emphasis on rationality isn’t actually new; examine the history of colonialism and you’ll see this concept deployed in defence of imperialism time and time again. We’re making them better. They’re barbarians. They’re irrational and superstitious. They should be more like us.

Historically, of course, Christians made these statements in support of imperialism. But I am concerned when atheists adopt the same rhetoric because I don’t believe that it can be divorced from its close association with oppressive action.

I don’t want an atheist world. I want a cosmopolitan or pluralistic world. Based on my upbringing and my research, I’ve come to believe that pluralism is the best counter to oppression. That includes the oppression perpetuated by religious fundamentalists.

And what do we hate about religious fundamentalism? Intolerance. We despise its hatred for women, for sexual minorities, for the poor, for other religions, and for atheism, too. And we hate its arrogance. We steadfastly oppose its attempts to impose itself on everyone else–so why on earth would we adopt the same approach to atheism? Either we support freedom of thought, or we don’t.

Because I’m an atheist, I agree that it’s rational to disbelieve the existence of god. And because I’m an ex-fundamentalist, I agree that it’s important to criticize (and fight) religious fundamentalism.

But here’s the catch, atheists: atheism might be rational, but being one doesn’t mean that overall you’re a rational person. It means that you made one rational choice over the course of your lifetime. It doesn’t mean you’re an ethical person, either. So I find the idea that I’m supposed to spread atheism as a social good to be absurd. I do not want to exchange one oppressive cultural hierarchy for another, and that’s what evangelistic atheism asks me to do.

I hope that clarifies my position.

Post inspired by this article.
Theorists that influenced the views expressed in this post: Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, Talal Asad, Kwame Appiah, Jurgen Habermas.

Containing Multitudes

So I’m not a secular activist.

To the horrified atheists reading my blog: let go of your pearls. To the Christians praising the Lord: this prodigal hasn’t returned. I am an atheist. I deliberately chose a secular life over a religious life. And I am an activist. I organize for abortion rights and contraception access, for tighter homeschool regulations, for freedom of (and from) religion.

But I am not a secular activist.

The promotion of atheism simply isn’t a priority for me. It never has been. I grew up in a community that expected me to peddle Jesus as evidence of my salvation and I have no intention of exchanging that for a community that expects me to peddle atheism instead. If that’s treason, call me a traitor–and join a long line of Christians who’ve flung the same term in my direction.

Here’s the trouble: I care more about social justice than I do about atheism, and I think a person can be a strong ally for social justice causes without being an atheist. Your belief in God matters less to me than your position on gender equality. I don’t strive for a godless world. I would rather see a world defined by respect and tolerance than by spirituality or the lack thereof.

And for some, this means I’m just not atheist enough. I take offense to that. I heard exactly the same rhetoric from Christians incensed by the fact I supported gay rights. You’re not really a Christian. You just think you’re a Christian. You’re hiding your faith from the world. And they wouldn’t listen to me when I told them, repeatedly, that I did believe in God, that I considered myself a person of faith and this is simply what my faith demanded of me. My faith didn’t mesh with theirs and therefore, they erased it. Pretended it didn’t exist. Belittled it and me.

That’s no different than telling me that I’m not really secular, or that I’m ashamed of being an atheist, because I don’t choose a certain label for myself. I chose a secular life. I didn’t wake up one morning and abruptly decide to discard the Christianity business. I wrestled with that decision for years. I argued with myself and with everyone else, I reasoned it out–just like any good freethinker–and arrived at a conclusion.

So if I tell you I don’t consider myself a secular activist, show me a bit of respect and ask me why. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t try to tell me that I’m something I’m not just because it’s not what you expected.

As for my reasons, there are many of them. I’m uncomfortable with secularism’s tendencies to be Islamophobic and classist–Muslim women don’t need you to save them and if your best criticism of Christians is that they’re uneducated rednecks, then your rhetoric needs an overhaul. I feel alienated by evangelistic atheists who seem to think that a better world is a non-theistic world.

And I am particularly concerned by the attitude that gender equality, gay rights, free speech and other social justice issues are really secular issues. They’re not secular. They’re not religious, either. Social justice isn’t a matter of theism vs. non-theism. These issues are much, much bigger than that and victory won’t be accomplished until both camps, religious and non-religious, accept that and work together. We should be building partnerships where we can and instead, we’ve exiled ourselves to our respective corners and we only talk to each other to fling insults.

Call me an idealist if you want, but I think we’re capable of better things. And understand that when I say we I mean humans. Not secularists. Not Christians. I mean everyone.

And I realize it’s not always possible for theists and non-theists to work together. Religious fundamentalism is a powerful and profoundly dangerous force in the world; I know that as well as anyone. But there’s a catch. Atheists, you’re not going to defeat fundamentalism on your own and mainline theists, neither are you. It’s a common evil, it affects all of us, and the solution is a popular rejection of fundamentalist beliefs.

Recent stats on the rise of the religious “nones” are more than article fodder. It’s a lesson, or at least it ought to be. Take a close look at Pew’s research. Superficially, it’s clear. The US is experiencing an unprecedented rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated people. But this isn’t a win for secularism or a loss for religion. Two-thirds say they still believe in God. More than a third say they’re spiritual, but not religious. At the same time, most of them don’t take the Bible literally and aren’t looking for a church. Most still don’t identify themselves as agnostic or atheist.

And among those that do choose those labels, 14% still believe in some sort of divine spirit. A quarter call themselves spiritual.

Our definitions of who’s secular and who’s religious are increasingly meaningless. We are rejecting these ideological categories as useless. The reality is that we contradict ourselves; we are vast and contain multitudes. If you sincerely believe that the answer to the world’s ills is atheism, you’re going to find yourself a member of a rapidly shrinking minority–right alongside religious fundamentalists. It’s no coincidence that in the reports I’ve linked to, respondents aren’t looking for a church and don’t describe themselves as seekers.

I see this as evidence that our focus should be on dialogue and the construction of sound, healthy coalitions focused on social justice concerns. That’s what people actually want, and that’s why when I organize, it’s not specifically for the promotion of atheism.

If that means I’m just not secular enough, then so be it.

Evangelicals: Still Killing the Indian to Save the Man

Inspired by the case of Baby Veronica, America’s Evangelicals have begun to challenge the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

It’s not much of a surprise. The Western project of political imperialism never strayed too far from its Christian roots. In the global South, this meant that colonial governments often partnered with Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Colonial activity granted these missionaries unprecedented access to non-Christian people groups; in exchange, missionaries were expected to civilize the natives, making them more amenable to outside rule. The link between colonialism and missions work has been covered extensively in academic literature (including my own dissertation). But the phenomenon wasn’t limited to the global South. It also influenced the European colonization of North America.

Evangelical objections to ICWA are merely the latest iteration of an old prejudice.

Consider the mission schools. These schools were established for the express purpose of forcibly assimilating Native children into Western culture. The 1868 Annual Report of the Commissioner for Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior reveals just how integral these missions schools were to the US government’s colonial project.

John B. Riley, superintendent of an “Indian school,” wrote that, “However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. ”

“Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work. ”

The same report quotes John C. Ward, a United States Indian Agent based in California: “The parents of these Indian children are ignorant, and know nothing of the value of education, and there are no elevating circumstances in the home circle to arouse the ambition of the children. Parental authority is hardly known or exercised among the Indians in this agency. The agent should be endowed with some kind of authority to enforce attendance. The agent here has found that a threat to depose a captain if he does not make the children attend school has had a good effect.”

As the term suggests, most mission schools were affiliated with a Christian denomination. Writing for Amnesty International Magazine in 2007, Andrea Smith revealed that at the height of the mission school movement, churches ran the lion’s share of active schools; 460, compared to 25 secular schools run by the government’s Bureau for Indian Affairs. For many students, Christianity became connected to the trauma of cultural violence. In the same piece, Smith quoted Willetta Lophus of the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe: “A little while ago, I was supposed to attend a Halloween party. I decided to dress as a nun because nuns were the scariest things I ever saw.” Lophus had survived a childhood at a Catholic-run mission school.

Church-affiliated mission schools mandated Christian worship and banned any semblance of Native culture, including Native languages. Administrators reported on their Native charges to the federal government (just like their counterparts in colonized Africa).  These schools were run on a model inspired by the Carlisle Indian School, founded by Captain Richard Pratt.

Pratt’s motivations were no secret.  “Kill the Indian and save the man,” he wrote, and that’s exactly what mission schools strove to accomplish.

Native parents weren’t given a choice about sending their children to mission schools. The US government forcibly removed Native children and systematically stripped them of their culture.

As a consequence, Native languages were decimated and even now, only a few have made a resurgence. For Native tribes, the mission schools movement delivered  a crushing strike at their traditions. And the ramifications have been severe. Reservations are plagued by disproportionately high rates of unemployment, suicide, addiction, and sexual assault, among other concerns. The recent controversy over the Violence Against Women Act, which allotted tribal governments the ability to prosecute non-Native men who assault Native women, is just further evidence that Native cultures and Native bodies are not respected by the colonizing government.

American Christians enabled this colonization. They participated in this cultural violence. Their confidence in the superiority of their beliefs translated into the arrogant conviction that Christianity could, and should, replace Native culture.

And now, having learned nothing from this, they are attacking a piece of legislation that they made necessary because of their abuse of Native children. Elizabeth Sharon Morris, who runs the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, advocates for the repeal of ICWA and told the Huffington Post that she feels “sick to her stomach” at the thought of Baby Veronica returning to a Native home.

The Post also quotes Johnston Moore, executive director of adoption outfit Home Forever: “ICWA unfairly allows our child welfare and judicial systems to treat children differently if they happen to be eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.” According to Moore, Baby Veronica has been “traumatically ripped” from her adoptive home because of her Native status.

On its website, Home Forever argues that adoption is a Biblical mandate. To date, Moore’s spent over $300,000 in legal fees in an on-going attempt to adopt two Native boys. His perspective is rather obvious: he believes he’s entitled to adopt Native children because the Bible tells him so.

It is worth noting that this perspective isn’t universal among American Christians, though the Christian adoption movement is growing in popularity. Journalist Kathryn Joyce investigated that movement for her most recent book, and I’ve also blogged about it here. These Christian-led attacks on ICWA are a timely and troubling reminder that colonialism is an active and thriving force, and it’s one not restrained to the global South. The consequences of colonialism are just as visible in the United States as they are overseas.