Let me just say first that I agree with what you’re about to shout into your computer, that supportive and accepting inclusivity should always be a top priority for any community group or movement, especially one comprised of intersectionally-marginalized people (not only are we all marginalized as nonbelievers, many of us are also women, people of color, disabled, LGBTQ, etc.). But we aren’t there yet, and while we continue to work towards it, we still need to offer exclusive and safe spaces for our marginalized-within-marginalized community members and peers.
Here in New York City alone, there are a number of groups within atheist circles marketed to certain demographics: Muslimish is a (now worldwide!) discussion group for doubting or formerly devout Muslims, Secular Asian Community is an online space, and I co-facilitate a support group for young ex-Christians. Amy Davis Roth recently launched Los Angeles Women’s Atheist and Agnostic Group. Sarah Moglia founded Skeptability earlier this year, a blogging network of disability activists within skepticism. POC Beyond Faith hosts weekly twitter chats. LGBTQ Humanist Council of Baltimore offers community for “good without god” LGBTQ members. These are only a handful of the ones I know about, across the country there must be so many more. (If you know of them I would encourage you to leave it in the comments so others may find groups that are available for them!)
Why do these groups exist? More importantly, why are so many people so angry that these groups exist? The reason these groups thrive and are multiplying is simple, yet significant: marginalized people within atheist and skeptic communities don’t yet feel that there’s a place for them. They want space to meet other people like them without the pressure of the privileged majority being a part of the conversation. They want healing and support and solidarity from people who know what it’s like to be them. We want a place to air our grievances to only people we trust who have had similar experiences. We’ve all been burned too many times by privileged people trying to speak our truths to us or for us to be able to trust this movement with our fragile and complex lives and needs. At least not the way it is now.
I am hopeful for and committed to a day where exclusive safe spaces exist not because they’re all we have, but because once in a while we will still want to get together with our people. I have plenty of reason to believe we are on a positive path towards inclusive atheism that will be healthy for all members of society, but we aren’t there yet. We are still stuck on the step that requires us to offer safe havens from the privileged majority that takes up most of the space at cons, on blogging forums, YouTube channels, in board meetings, panel discussions, and the pages of our books.
The people who need these groups understand why they exist, but the people who are excluded from attending are often incredulous about the fact that they aren’t invited. The irony is that privileged people being mad that some spaces aren’t available to them is exactly the reason marginalized groups created those spaces: because most spaces aren’t available to us so we had to make our own.
We aren’t your spectacle, we aren’t your token “saved fundamentalists who saw the light.” LGBTQ people aren’t “so lucky” that we left our “oppressive” or “unwelcoming” religious communities and “found atheism.” Writing our stories for us along this narrative without giving us space to tell them ourselves tells us that you don’t truly value our voices. We often feel incredible condescension from our atheist peers about this, and it’s yet another reason many LGBTQ folks within atheism choose to stick with their smaller, more exclusive groups within the movement. People who were never Christians beg me to let them attend our ex-Christian support group because they are interested in our conversations and they want to know what we deal with. Sometimes that sentiment is appreciated, but there are plenty of public resources that cover this. What exclusive spaces do is provide healing for people who need it in an environment that is comprised only of other people with shared experiences. That is absolutely invaluable to any healing process (that’s why many addiction recovery groups aren’t open to the public, regardless of how badly you might be interested in how they work), and turning it into a spectator sport takes our experiences away from us and makes them something that exists for someone else.
And please – PLEASE – stop using us as your token into “successful diversity.” Your one transgender panel speaker is great, but you haven’t maxed out yet. Keep going. And stop promoting ex-believers as your poster children for atheism (unless that person is willing to take that responsibility of their own volition, like Nate Phelps). Stop pointing at Muslimish or Beyond Faith or Women in Secularism as proof that people can “overcome” oppressive religion and join the “right side.” A lot of us don’t see ourselves that way, and we would appreciate it if instead of trying to use us as pawns in your fight to “win” against religion and prove that you can offer something better just by the sheer fact that we exist, you would offer us space to heal, to talk to our peers, to share our own experiences in our own time and in our own way. If you truly care for people who are leaving religion and looking for a community of nonbelievers that will embrace them, be kind and patient and let us create the parameters and spaces that work for us. Don’t assume that you’ve done a better job than religious communities just because marginalized people who happen to be nonbelievers exist. We need more.
If we want to move towards an inclusive movement where these pockets of safe spaces aren’t the only thing that some people are comfortable attending within our community, we need to change the attitude and the priority of the privileged people who run this movement. Please stop asking for access to our spaces, and instead, make your public spaces more welcoming for us. Make your panels diverse, amplify voices of marginalized people when you retweet things instead of the ones that already have plenty of amplification on their own, ask for our opinions when creating new spaces or developing new ideas, work harder at anti-harassment policies, and most importantly, take our needs and our requests seriously. We aren’t trolling you. We genuinely do want and need these things. Stop blindly defending yourself from our criticism, and listen to what we can all do together to make atheism better, and how you can help us from your privileged vantage without trampling over us in the process. Don’t get caught up in how angry or frustrated we sound, just listen to the pleas even if you don’t like our tone (we’re angry because you aren’t good at listening most of the time, but we can talk about that another day).
Inclusive atheism is a necessary, noble – and above all – attainable goal. For now our safe spaces are the only hope for many of us, so please let us have them and understand why you aren’t welcome there yet. They aren’t splinter groups or divisive plots to split up or divert atheism. They’re all we have. Do your part to make public spaces (online and in person) better for us so that we can begin to be ready to come out of the shadows. We’re fighting for our space and we’re ready when you are.
[Featured photo via Healthy Balance Fitness]