Most atheists are not white & other non-fairy tales

Xunzi
Xunzi

Over at Comment is Free Belief (where I am an occasional contributor) there is an interesting post up, The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists. Actually, I disagree with the thrust of the post pretty strongly. But here’s the important section:

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, James Randi … if you’re a regular Cif belief reader, you’ll already have spotted the pattern – these are the names of arguably the most prominent, outspoken atheists and “sceptics” in the world. There’s something else you should notice – they are all white men. The atheist and sceptic movements are dominated by white men and I think this is a problem.

I was involved in an atheist organization in my younger years. The president was a Eurasian woman, and I was the vice president. The treasurer had a Muslim Arab father, so I suppose we didn’t fit this profile. But I think the generalization holds. But I don’t think it’s a problem really for the Richard Dawkins of the world. In fact, there isn’t even that big of a deficit when it comes to non-whites if you look at it from a world wide perspective. The World Values Survey asks people if they fall into the categories “Religious Person”, “Not a Religious Person”, or “Convinced Atheist.” Below are some bar plots from the 5th and 4th waves, take in the mid-2000s and around 2000 respectively.

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As you can see the most secular nations in the world are those of East Asia, in particular what are often termed “Confucian societies.” It is likely therefore that the majority of the world’s atheists are actually East Asian. So why no East Asian atheist movement? Because historically East Asian nations have not placed an exclusive institutional religious identity at the center of their elite political culture. This was one of the reasons that many 18th century Enlightenment philosophers exhibited a fair amount of Sinophilia.

Though I accept the arguments of scholars that Confucius would be defined as a theist today, the earliest teachings attributed to him tend to be strongly biased away from metaphysical speculation and toward a worldly consequentialism. The third great Confucian, after Mencius and Confucius himself, Xunzi, seems to have been a more explicitly materialist. Xunzi strikes me in some ways as the Thomas Hobbes of the classical Chinese sages.

In any case, the cultural and institutional Confucianism which was the dominant elite ideology in East Asia for nearly 2,000 years was not atheistic and secularist as such. Even Xunzi defended the necessity of rites and reverence for a well ordered society. The Chinese state subsidized and encouraged particular sects, and discouraged others. The key point is that religious movements were always subordinate to the elite culture, which itself tended to look more and more suspiciously upon manifestations of religious enthusiasm. With all due respect to Daoism the most prominent organized religion in East Asia has been Buddhism, and the suppression of the power of the Buddhist sangha in 9th century China, 14th century Korea, 16th Japan, and early modern Vietnam, all attest to the reality that when organized religion becomes, well, too organized, in Confucian societies it is brought to heel. In other words the process of the decoupling of church and state which arguably began in Protestant Europe with the secularization of church lands during the Reformation and came to fruition over the next few centuries has long been a feature of East Asian civilization in smaller less catastrophic doses. All the Emperors of China were their own Henry VIII, defenders and destroyers of the faith.*

With these facts under our belt, it is easier to understand that atheist propagandists from d’Holbach to Dawkins are products of a particular historical experience. The transformation of Christendom to the West, the counter-reaction on the part of organized Christianity, and the eruption of “New Atheism” in its own turn as a response to the rise of a muscular Christianity in a post-Christian age. Even those in the West who espouse multiculturalism and consider themselves identified with racial minority subcultures have a very difficult time conceptualizing any dynamic where the West is not the center or standard. Generally all conflicts and dynamics are assumed to be a combination of the West vs. something else.

ukreligionTo the left is data from the UK census on religion and ethnicity. Notice that the plural majority of Chinese in Britain have “No Religion.” Blacks differ whether they are of direct African origin, or from the Diaspora in the West Indies. It is among South Asians you see a strong definite identification with religion. This pattern is repeated internationally. What you’re seeing are deep rooted cultural patterns, a tendency to fuse religious and ethnic-national identities, in particular among South Asians. I will grant that there are differences of kind here. While it is common knowledge that Jawaharlal Nehru, the founder of modern India, was an agnostic, the personal lack of deep religious piety of the founder of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, is obfuscated by many modern Pakistanis (the fact even that he was from an Ismaili Shia background is also hidden).

All the Hemant Mehtas and Alorn Shahas will not change the structural parameters which make atheism, and irreligious attitudes in general, taboo, discouraged, or rare, among South Asians. India, unlike Pakistan or Bangladesh, has long had prominent irreligious politicians and movements, from the atheism of the Communist parties and the Dravidian movement, to individual politicians such as George Fernandes. And yet Indians remain a religious people by and large, with strong communal orientations.

I am not a role model!
I am not a role model!

In the near future British Asians (South Asians) seem likely to be insulating themselves from the broader dynamics in Western society toward secularization. They intermarry with other groups at very low rates, despite being less than 5% of the British population, and fragmented even amongst themselves. When aggressive secularists like Dawkins attack Islam in the same manner in which they attack Christianity, they’re accused of Islamophobia. In the USA mainstream liberals like Josh Marshall look skeptically upon the ‘odd confluence’ between Christian religious fundamentalists and New Atheists in their attitudes toward Islam. And it isn’t just Islam. In late 2004 a group of Sikhs in Britain rioted because of a blasphemous play. Here’s what went down:

With its depiction of rape and murder within a Sikh temple, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s drama was bound to upset critics who felt that its title Behzti – Dishonour – encapsulated the slur it cast on their faith. But few anticipated that a small-scale production by a young playwright could spark the violent confrontation that this weekend resulted in thousands of pounds worth of damage and clashes with riot police at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

This is not an atypical expression of “communal” outrage which occasionally flairs up in South Asia. Though in this case the outrage was directed against a heterodox member of the community.

The overall point I’m making is that we need to take cultural difference seriously. Just as East Asians are relatively secular because of their particular distinctive history, so South Asian culture and society has been shaped by its religious commitments in a very deep manner. Of course this sort of reflexive and explicit confessional outlook does not have to necessarily persist. To be French was to be Catholic until the emergence of a public non-Catholic element within French society during and after the Revolution. The prominence of Buddhism in Korean culture under the Silla and Goryeo gave way to marginalization under the Joseon. But these changes did not happen through better role models, rather, they were the outcome of an uprooting of the basic cultural presuppositions of the defining elites. The sort of multiculturalism which is currently being promoted in Britain right now arguably serves as a check on these sorts of transformations. Amartya Sen has argued so. The problem lies not with atheist organizations and Richard Dawkins, but a national elite which crystallized and solidifies specific parameters which define a recognized subculture in a multicultural order. I would argue that this is a case where the American model, where there is less state guiding of cultural hybridization and coexistence, gives more leeway for individual personal self-exploration and definition.

* This is not to say that East Asia is necessarily a haven for a critical rationalist perspective, what with the prominence of Chinese medicine, geomancy, Korean shamanism, and New Religious Movements in Japan.

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