Godless Americana

From the May-June 2014 issue of News & Letters:

Godless Americana

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, by Sikivu Hutchinson (Infidel Books, 2013).

This collection of essays continues the conversation started in Hutchinson’s 2011 book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values War. Hutchinson, an atheist, is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and a senior fellow at the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Atheism, skepticism, and humanism are overlapping movements that fight the religious Right. Hutchinson’s previous book was ground-breaking in challenging the largely male, white and science- and reason-focused New Atheist movement to include a focus on social justice and the perspectives of women, people of color, and LGBT people. In both books, she explains in detail the devastating effects of social oppression on individuals and how it helps the religious Right’s agenda.

The religious Right promotes the notion that racism, sexism and classism have disappeared and that Americans live in a meritocracy where anyone can achieve wealth simply by working harder, praying and using “Biblical principles” in business. This “Prosperity Gospel” is especially popular in Black churches, and Hutchinson explains how this form of exploitation created the predatory lending/mortgage crisis.

She also describes the very real effects of racism in education. Most Black youth face constant negative expectations, including from teachers, that they will supposedly become criminals or dependent upon the welfare system. They lack role models and experience discrimination in higher education. Predominantly Black high schools lack college preparation courses and are targeted by military recruiters. The religious Right itself is attempting to destroy public education.

Another disastrous effect of the religious Right on Black religious communities has been patriarchy. Hutchinson eloquently explains the connections between “masculine and feminine” gender roles that are drilled into children and other forms of oppression. “Gay conversion” scams and the homelessness that disproportionately affects Queer youth of color result from belief in these supposedly “natural” roles. These roles also influence racist stereotypes such as the “hyper-masculine” Black thug and the “hyper-sexual” Black woman who supposedly invites rape.

Hutchinson shows how the cloying notions of white “femininity” and “innocence,” both sexual and otherwise, against which white feminists rebel, have also historically given them the ability to oppress Black people. The opposite stereotype, the “primitive savage,” continues to fuel the notion that people of color are a threat requiring various sorts of control ranging from constant policing to reproductive control.

Hutchinson reveals to white atheists, who sometimes believe this racist stereotype, the real reasons why religion has been so important to the Black community. Historically, especially for Black women, it has been a means of morally asserting their humanity as well as one of the few areas where they can exercise authority. The disproportionate deaths of Black youth due to violence and health problems are also a factor. While public programs are slashed, churches are often the only available community centers and “young women…can’t just trot down the street to the local center of reason and science for a healing dose of evolution when there is a crisis in their families.”

Hutchinson does not delve into solutions to the religious Right and social oppression other than implying that all people should embrace atheism (although religious people have praised her books). However, part of the solution does lie in projects like her own Women’s Leadership Program, started in 2002. There young women are encouraged to analyze these issues through a feminist, humanist lens and become leaders in their communities.

—Adele

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