Well, it’s time to cancel your subscription to National Geographic—if you still have one. For a while it’s been turning into a religously-infused tabloid rather than the educational nature/anthropology magazine that I loved of yore. In several posts I’ve documented its increasing tendency to coddle religion (see here), and it’s only going to get worse since the magazine was taken over by Rupert Murdoch.
Now the magazine has hit its lowest point yet, polevaulting the shark in a new piece by journalist Gabe Bullard, “The World’s Newest Religion: No Religion.” While starting off as a decent bit of reportage about the rise of nonbelief and secularism, it suddenly descends into slander and clickbait, highlighting the “privilege” of nonbelief, the dominance of atheism by white males, and accusations that the “leaders” of atheism (whom they name) are misogynists. Here are some excerpts:
. . . The secularizing West is full of white men. The general U.S. population is 46 percent male and 66 percent white, but about 68 percent of atheists are men, and 78 percent are white. Atheist Alliance International has called the gender imbalance in its ranks “a significant and urgent issue.”
And this (my emphasis):
The Privilege of Not Believing
There are a few theories about why people become atheists in large numbers. Some demographers attribute it to financial security, which would explain why European countries with a stronger social safety net are more secular than the United States, where poverty is more common and a medical emergency can bankrupt even the insured.
Atheism is also tied to education, measured by academic achievement (atheists in many places tend to have college degrees) or general knowledge of the panoply of beliefs around the world (hence theories that Internet access spurs atheism).
. . . The social factors that promote atheism—financial security and education—have long been harder to attain for women and people of color in the United States.
Around the world, the Pew Research Center finds that women tend to be more likely to affiliate with a religion and more likely to pray and find religion important in their lives. That changes when women have more opportunities. “Women who are in the labor force are more like men in religiosity. Women out of the labor force tend to be more religious,” says Conrad Hackett with Pew. “Part of that might be because they’re part of a religious group that enforces the power of women being at home.”
In a Washington Post op-ed about the racial divides among atheists, Black Skeptics Group founder Sikivu Hutchinson points out that “the number of black and Latino youth with access to quality science and math education is still abysmally low.” That means they have fewer economic opportunities and less exposure to a worldview that does not require the presence of God.
Religion has a place for women, people of color, and the poor. By its nature, secularism is open to all, but it’s not always as welcoming.
Some of the humanist movement’s most visible figures aren’t known for their respect toward women. Prominent atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have awful reputations for misogyny, as does the late Christopher Hitchens. Bill Maher, the comedian and outspoken atheist, is no (nonexistent) angel, either.
Remember, this is National Geographic! O, magazine, have you no sense of decency, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
I’m not sure why this article descends from journalism to unsupported assertions based on anecdotes, and finally to slander and ad hominems (check the links to see its “sources” for indicting atheism); but I showed it to Grania, who sent me the following response (she was one of the active members of the Atheist Ireland organization). I quote her response directly (it’s indented), and with permission. Be sure to read the whole National Geographic piece first.
- Belonging to an atheist group is a self-selecting process. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of non-believers in the USA and Europe don’t belong to a formal humanist/secularist/atheist group, see no reason to, and often don’t have the time to devote to it. It is not at all accurate to attribute this to dislike of perceived “leaders”. In most cases atheist NS and secularist groups exist for the purposes of political advocacy—something that a lot of people have no interest in.
- It is completely skewed to claim that because there are only a small group of people who have become global household names in atheism (at least on the internet) this is therefore representative of atheism as a whole. If you look at atheist and humanist groups around the world (who have nothing at all to do with Dawkins et al.), they have plenty of women both as leaders as well as members. Although there is often a gender imbalance, it would be tendentious, and probably dishonest, to claim that this was all about sexism. Instead of complaining that there aren’t enough women in atheism, they could try promoting the existing women in atheism. Increased visibility of the thousands that are already there would probably attract more women. These women include Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland, Shappi Khorsandi of British Humanists, Jen Peebles of Atheist Community of Austin, Sarah Haider (co-founder of the Ex-Muslims of North America), and Inna Shevchenko, anti-religious activist and head of FEMEN. Annie Laurie Gaylor is already quite prominent (and effective) as co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but is often left off the AL’s lists of “atheist leaders”.
- There is an awful habit of dismissing of the “wrong” kind of women in atheism, i.e., any women who a few bloggingheads have decided are not the type of woman they approve of. These women range from Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Eiynah (“Nice Mangoes”) to the women mentioned in point 3—women who do real work in real atheist organisations, and work that has a genuine and measurable affect on the communities in which they live.
JAC: I’ll add that the notion of nonbelieving being a “privilege” is a canard based on a half-truth. The word “privilege”, of course, is one used by authoritarian leftists (ALs) to denote that one has an undeserved advantage based on race, background, class, and so on. It is a pejorative term, and if you have “privilege” you are supposed to admit it and try to expunge its effects (racism, etc.) from your behavior. But the “privilege” of atheism is not like this.
I do think that nonbelief spreads when people are no longer so destitute, oppressed, or laden with feelings that society doesn’t care about them that they turn to God for succor. That was Marx’s thesis, and I agree with him. Religion will largely disappear when societies learn to take better care of their members—something instantiated in the nations of northern Europe. This is noted in the National Geographic piece.
But the oppression, despair, and destitution that keep minorities religious is not the fault of atheists, and we should not see atheist “privilege” as something that we need to expiate or be ashamed of. Indeed, some religions gain power from trying to keep the disenfranchised satisfied with a substandard life, promising that the next one will be better (cf. Mother Teresa).
I believe that to rid the world of religion, we need to raise the water level to float everyone’s boat: create the kind of “successful societies” (à la Greg Paul) that eliminate the need for religion. This is where atheism and humanism make common cause. But the religiosity of the oppressed, and of minorities, can in no way be pinned on the nonreligious, or on their supposed failure to welcome minorities.
Here’s one reaction to the National Geographic piece, which really is a travesty—the conversion of a once-respectable magazine into a clickbait venue that’s going the way of BuzzFeed. Bullard’s journalist ethics, and efforts, are reprehensible. It’s truly sad.
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) April 23, 2016
Author Bullard didn’t bother interviewing anybody but AL atheists, although plenty of people would take issue with his claims. As one commenter noted, “Whaa?? NatGeo is quoting salon.com, accusing Dawkins of misogyny?? Is this Tumblr, am I lost?”