Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who did I meet at the Texas Freethought/Atheist Alliance of America Convention?

Lots of interesting people!

I met a slightly older white guy who wanted my thoughts on why there were so few women in his local atheist group. While I didn't feel in position to definitively answer, we discussed some of the factors in society and within his group that could lead to that situation. In the course of this, however, he told me the following story. He was walking past the University of Texas, Austin with his young son. A fraternity was sitting on bleachers they had set up in front of their frat house. Every time a woman would walk by they held up numbers to “rate her.”

It is hard to find words to describe how damaging this must have been to the women walking by. Or to convey the degree of entitlement and dehumanization of women that is revealed in these young men's thinking. At the same time, this is just bringing to the surface and making explicit the way that women are always being looked at by huge numbers of men every time they step out their door. This is extreme and cruel and humiliating, but it is also just a matter of degree worse than the routine catcalling, elevator-eyes, and talking-to-women's-breasts that goes on every day. All this is totally unacceptable and urgently needs to be revolted against.

To his great credit (and to my great pleasure), the man telling me this story said he stopped and spoke really loud to his son. “Son,” he said, “If you ever want to know what an asshole looks like, there's a whole bunch of them right there on display.”

I met a young Black man who had never attended an atheist event before. He came because he was friends on FaceBook with Sikivu Hutchinson and wanted to hear her speak. He explained that he hadn't “come out” as an atheist to his friends or family yet. He feared their reaction and explained that there weren't any other atheists among his immediate community. There was also a hysterical, although also rather painful, discussion between him, a couple older Black folks, and myself over how to handle atheist dating.

He explained that nearly every date he'd ever been on ended as soon as he told the woman he was an atheist. The older guy in the conversation (who I really enjoyed talking to overall) gave him some terrible advice (it included dishonesty and an attempt to appeal to a woman's most materialistic side), but the woman in the conversation cut through that very quickly and with a firmness. We teased and laughed over the situation, but the truth remained that it is not easy and can be lonely to be an atheist. We live in an extremely atomized and alienating society where finding real human connection and closeness based on something other than surface superficiality is not easy to begin with. Finding that as an atheist in an overwhelmingly Christian community only compounds the problem. (The same thing goes for folks who are progressive or radical or revolutionary.)

Without attempting to downplay the difficulties above, there is an absolute baseline of being honest with the people you are meeting and getting to know. There is NOTHING good that can come of trying to hook up with or forge a relationship with someone you don't respect enough to be honest with. There is no relationship worth having – not a friendship or a romantic relationship – that is not based on mutual respect and equality. Further, if they don't know where you are coming from and what you want out of life – then you will never find anyone who is actually attracted to you on the right foundation. Too often dating and relationships are treated as some special “separate realm” from our overall life's pursuits and world outlook. Like, “Over here is what I am about... over there is someone I am trying to date and what I am looking for in a relationship.”

People should live their lives fully and be as open as possible in the world about what they think needs to be different and they should act on it – and in the course of that they will find others who share similar interests, or are intrigued by and open to hearing about those interests. Dating, starting a relationship, and falling in love are not just automatic outgrowths of “shared interests,” there is a unique process and chemistry involved that goes beyond shared interests. But, all that ought to be on the foundation of shared convictions and principles. And, relationships and love are things that develop, need to be worked at, and transform over time – through a lot of learning and struggling through differences and challenges. This is what gives them richness and real closeness. This is not always easy (and this world throws up all kinds of barriers and obstacles to people being able to connect with each other on the basis of equality and mutual respect, especially all the many ways that social attitudes reflecting the oppression of women manifest – including on very intimate and personal levels) – but it is only possible by being honest, open, and above-board.

During the panel on “Diversity in the Movement” I commented that I don't think atheists should think of ourselves as an identity group that is just fighting for acceptance. What people think is not the same as whether they are born male or female, Black or Latino or white, on one side of a border or another, or whether someone is primarily attracted to one gender or another, etc. Everyone can change how they think and we all ought to repeatedly throughout life as we learn more. Further, while we should oppose bigotry against atheists, the main harm caused by religion is not the bigotry against atheists. It is the way that it enslaves and shackles people's minds and keeps them slavish towards their own oppression, instead of being able to consciously understand the world and transform it in their interests. Anyway, afterward Woody Kaplan gave a brilliant example illuminating this perspective.
James Byrd

Matthew Shepard
He recounted the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Matthew was tied to a fence and tortured and then left to die in Wyoming because he was gay. That same year, James Byrd – a Black man in Texas – was tied to the back of two white people's truck and dragged to his death. Kaplan pointed out that while atheists are really not accepted in public office and this is a problem, there is no comparison to this kind of violent oppression still facing by Black people and gay people (and I would add women and immigrants, among others).

There were tons of other fascinating people I met over this past weekend. A young woman who had gotten sucked very deeply into the world of conspiracy theories through that horrible film Zeitgeist. She described getting out of it being comparable to trying to get out of a cult. An older Black man who was in the military and then a school teacher who was told by family members that he couldn't really love his grandkids because he didn't love god (WTF!). He was undeterred, but think of what this actually reveals about the way in which those other family members love those children. They only love them because they love god? So, they don't really care for the kids otherwise? An anthropology professor who was as angry as I was about the biodeterminism that was preached by Michael Shermer about the supposedly “genetic” basis for men preferring large breasts (this is total BULLSHIT and perhaps the subject a future blogpost). She thanked me for saying something about it in the women's panel (a lot of people thanked me for this) and then gave me a list of titles to check out from her own field of research. And lots more folks... including a ton of good-natured non-god-fearing Texans.

Okay – that is just a small flavor. To everyone I met, thanks for taking the time to talk. Please do stay in touch. Either in the comments section – or via email: sunsara_tour (at) yahoo.com

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posted by Sunsara Taylor at 12:16 PM


Blogger joel said...

"There is no relationship worth having – not a friendship or a romantic relationship – that is not based on mutual respect and equality."

Well said.

I didn't get to meet you, but I heard you speak in the "Women in the Movement" panel. Thanks for your contribution to a memorable, thought-provoking weekend.

10/16/11, 9:30 PM


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