Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Are atheists/humanists excluding ethnic minorities?

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On Comment is Free, Alom Saha has a piece in which he asks whether the atheist/humanist "movement" (if indeed it is possible to talk of such a thing - one for the comment thread, maybe) does enough to reach out to ethnic minorities because, in his opinion, as it stands it is a predominantly-white affair:
"While black and Asian people may not be actively excluded from atheist and sceptic gatherings, the lack of black and Asian people as speakers or audience members might be one reason why many black or Asian people feel such events are not "for them". So, even if there's no deliberate exclusion, there is accidental exclusion. Perhaps some people are genuinely unaware of this, but perhaps others are just hoping the problem does not really exist."
This isn't the first time Saha has put forward this argument at the Guardian – he recently asked why there aren't more members of ethnic minorities attending "skeptic" events (a "movement" with significant overlap with atheism/humanism) – and while he may indeed have a point in terms of numbers, I'm inclined to say he's being a little harsh on humanist organisations, as well as the white, male "leaders" he identifies. As a publication, New Humanist is slightly different from a group organising meet-ups and talks – we're not necessarily catering to a "community", except perhaps for a readership who share common interests – but the concerns of our magazine, as well as the diversity of the people who write for it and the people we meet as a result, hardly suggest that we are inadvertently excluding ethnic minorities. And some of the most committed campaigners I have met have been former Muslims who have first-hand experience of the excesses of religion and possess a frame of reference for their unbelief that is probably lacking in someone such as myself, who has never really had any religious affiliation worthy of the name (the former Catholics I have met tend to be similarly committed).

Saha points out that some black and Asian people feel that "coming out" and self-identifying as atheist would be an uncomfortable, even risky, step to take. He is surely right about this, but he goes on to suggest that the atheist "movement" needs to do more to reach out to those people. It's always possible to do more, of course, but I don't think humanist groups are failing to do this, and there's only so much that they can do. If it is to become less taboo for atheists from, say, Muslim backgrounds to speak openly of their non-belief, then change will ultimately have to be driven from within those communities. Humanist groups can help by remaining open and inclusive (something which, I would argue, comes very easily to humanists) and, hopefully, as more and more people from ethnic minorities get involved, the knock-on effect will be that like-minded peers will feel more comfortable joining them.

What do you think? Do humanist/atheist groups need to do more in this area? If so, what could they do? Please share your views by commenting on this post.
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