Harlem Atheists Struggle Without Their Leader January 5, 2010

Harlem Atheists Struggle Without Their Leader

The Harlem branch of the Center for Inquiry used to be one of the few places I knew of where black people could come together as proud atheists. The 20-or-so regulars were under the leadership of Herbert Crimes (a.k.a. “Sibanye”).

A few months ago, Sibanye died of a blood disease. He was only 49.

What has happened to the community he helped bring together?

Unfortunately, they’re not doing too well:

Three months later, the fractured community remains leaderless and none of those who regularly attended Sibanye’s meetings are willing to step forward. “They need some real help,” says Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists.

Because it’s also a center of black culture, the new atheist leader would, ideally, be black, says [professor Charles] Zorn. He is white, and he sees that as a problem. “I feel comfortable participating, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable leading” the group, he says.

I’d love to see someone take charge of that group and help foster its growth, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening right now.

This happens to college groups all the time. The most successful of groups can die out when a strong president graduates. One of the things the Secular Student Alliance has focused on over the past few years has been succession planning — making sure each group knows who next year’s leaders are before it’s too late.

It’s far more difficult, though, when the leader leaves unexpectedly.

Austin Dacey has a nice obituary of Sibanye at Religion Dispatches.

Sibanye and I spent many hours in conversation about secularism, religion, and the black community. He was a tireless activist on issues of public education, racial justice, and black male identity, and he believed that Enlightenment values of pluralism, toleration, critical reason, and secular government were essential to progress. Almost every one of these conversations ended with Sibanye looking forward to some future activities, some next step, and parting with the words, “We’ll just take it from there.” And so I left the audience at Adam Clayton Powell with those words, for everyone still engaged in the endeavors that animated his life. Sibanye, we’ll just take it from there.

Here’s hoping the regular members of the Harlem group can find a different community to attend for the time being.


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  • muggle

    I’m finding it rather racist to insist the new leader be black. So non-blacks in Harlem count for nothing? They’re not part of the community?

    It’s time to get past this mentality. You can’t pull that crap in a white neighborhood anymore. It’s time to realize that it’s just as racist to insist on only giving the voice of leadership to a minority in the inner city.

    Some of us honkies do come from there.

  • Valdyr

    No one is “insisting” the leader be black. There’s a qualified white candidate who is disqualifying himself because he doesn’t feel comfortable leading a black group. It’s not necessarily a race thing–there’s a cultural aspect too. Being an atheist in black culture is different than being a white atheist. I can see why the Professor doesn’t feel he’d really be able to lead a group of people who come from that background and perspective, when he (I’m assuming) isn’t. It’s kind of like if a veterans group were led by someone who was never in the military. Sure, they could do it, but they’re not the ideal candidate.

  • In most of the communities I’ve lived in before coming to New York, yes, a largely white group would likely throw a shit fit if any kind of minority was put in charge. At the very least, lots of folks would just disappear as a passive-aggressive attack.

    I don’t think we can get past that mentality just by being frustrated by its persistence. In many people it’s as deeply ingrained as religion.

  • @muggle

    good point but it’s condescending to assume that a white leader would understand the nuances of a predominantly black organization.

  • Trace

    “While there’s a revolving door of participants, one constant is the meeting’s diversity: blacks, whites, Muslims, Christians, Jews, everyone is welcome.”

    So… what is the problem?

  • good point but it’s condescending to assume that a white leader would understand the nuances of a predominantly black organization.

    OK so atheist Jews shouldn’t lead atheist groups either because they don’t understand the ex-Christian attitude. And blacks shouldn’t lead whites because “it’s condescending to assume a black leader would understand the nuances of a predominantly white organization”. After all blacks have a different culture than whites and whites need a leader who understands their perspective.

    I’ll accept Valdyr’s cultural argument (of course, it has some validity) if it’s applied equally.

  • I think it’s time we realize that this is not a perfect world. Certainly in such a world, there wouldn’t be a problem with a white atheist leading a black atheist group, but until then; people need to feel comfortable- especially in atheist groups.

    I don’t think it’s racially insensitive to want a representative of a racial minority to be the leader of a group. Perhaps it is something irrational, but that’s just the way life is, and sometimes you’re just not going to understand unless you’re someone in the minority.

  • I don’t think it’s racially insensitive to want a representative of a racial minority to be the leader of a group.

    I don’t think this is bad either, but don’t be pissed (and complain sanctimoniously) when whites want a white leader.

  • OK so atheist Jews shouldn’t lead atheist groups either because they don’t understand the ex-Christian attitude.

    Well, to be completely candid, atheist Jews *don’t* understand the ex-Christian attitude. I believe in general that atheist groups are kinda self-defeating because atheists *don’t* share that much in common on their own (what? Not believing in God is…not that much.) So, AT THE VERY LEAST, if there is going to be a group that forms, I think that unofficial other similarities will develop. An ex-Mormon atheist is different than an atheist who was raised without religion, and is different from an ex-Muslim atheist, an ex-Jew atheist, etc., We can have something of a cross-cultural communication through symbols (e.g., the symbol of oppression in the midst of a greater community, although the particulars may vary, is generalizable enough so that people can have empathy and sympathy for each other.)

    I feel pretty nihilistic about the race discussion that has gone on here, so I don’t know if I want to even try to invest any sense of time in trying to talk about it. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I probably will any way.

    The issue is that many people want to take a color blind approach to the issue, when we still live in a system that is steeped in color consciousness and, contrary to what advocates of color blindness may believe, it does not dissipate simply by ignoring color. While advocates of color blindness recognize (or at least appear to recognize) one noteworthy thing (e.g., the differences aren’t caused by unresolvable, built-in biological differences), they fail to realize the continued social depth and reality of color. The problem is that the radical discussion of color and race that must occur to defuse this deep-seated tension is unpopular across the board, and understandably so.

  • Jennifer

    Wow. Can we not just count on the commonality of our lack of faith and dependence on reason to get by the ‘cultural differences’? Just because we were raised differently doesn’t mean we can’t come together and learn of each other’s situations. I know it would make no difference to me if I was in a mostly white group and the most qualified and willing candidate for leader was black, or hispanic, or jewish, or japanese. Don’t we come together to discuss and learn from each other? Preaching to the choir really doesn’t accomplish much!

  • Jennifer,

    The commonality of our lack of faith, as I’ve tried to say, isn’t that much. (Do we make groups relating to our common lack of belief in unicorns? Do we make groups relating to our common lack of collecting stamps?) At best, we can point out the difference is that we have a cultural distinction between the formermost and the latter examples: as people who lack faith, we have culturally deep experiences from living in societies were lack of faith is not the norm. We don’t have these for lack of belief in unicorns because the societies we live in don’t have majorities who believe that unicorns *do*.

    Not to suggest anything about anyone in particular, but again, “dependence on reason” isn’t necessary for atheism, although it can be culturally comorbid with it. Even when an atheist does depend on reason, it does not follow that that is the “theme” of any group that such atheists follow (similarly, even though many atheists seem to be scientifically minded, it does not follow that making an atheist group all about science is a “safe option” that will appeal to everyone.)

    Personally, it wouldn’t matter to me if I were in a mostly (insert any color/race/ethnicity here) group and the most qualified and willing candidate for leader was (insert any color/race/ethnicity here). Because I recognize that I shouldn’t expect, nor do I deserve, the opportunity for deep discussion and a catering to the issues that most impact me from such a discussion group.

    However, if it so happens that because I recognize this, I am discouraged from going to any group, or that I languish within a group, then it shouldn’t be all that surprising. ESPECIALLY if others can’t even recognize that there may be other such issues that are not being addressed.

    I dunno how to truly express it. But if you can think of any time when you were so thoroughly alienated, and even your alienation was invisible (people couldn’t believe it even existed!), then I don’t think you would say things like, “Preaching to the choir really doesn’t accomplish much.” But in that alienation, you wouldn’t even be aware if there *were* a choir or if you were singing solo and a capella.

  • @OneSTDV

    it is a matter of history, my friend. FOr African Americans, most of our leaders have come from the church. In the AA community, the history of Atheism is very small and oftentimes does not even get told. WEB Dubois was agnostic but that is barely mentioned. Heck, his denouncement of his U.S. citizen is never mentioned and his “conversion” to socialism isn’t either.

    Heck, Bayard Rustin was a gay communist and he is NEVER mentioned as the one who introduced MLK to Jainism and non violence.

    my point is that being atheist in the AA community is WAAAAAYYYY different than being atheist in the white community and even a muslim community.

    again, white skin privilege rears it’s ugly head.

  • muggle

    Andrew, you should not be afraid to speak your mind, you’re very well spoken.

    I would agree with you if this were a group about black history and civil rights but it’s not. It’s an Atheist group. I’ll admit I only have experience with a mixed group and it was a small group so everyone participated. Every Atheist’s experience is different, not just Atheists of differing colors.

    No, I can’t absolutely know what it’s like to be black any more than you can know what it’s like to be a woman. That point is well taken. I just don’t think it’s terribly relevant in this instance.

    And the part of my childhood spent in a black neighborhood was in Albany, not Harlem but it’s an experience I’ve learned from, not the least lesson of which was that we’d get ganged up for being white (this was in the mid-’60’s to date myself) and when we did move to a white town, I saw the one black kid ganged up on and thought people are all alike, they’re all assholes, which 40 years later I’m still seeing as a fair assessment of things.

    The discussion should be had and should be continued but can we white people also talk, especially if we don’t think people should be separated? For one thing, can I stop being blamed for things other white people did? I don’t blame all blacks for being ganged up on by some of them and I doubt very much you blame all of us for what some did. But, just as there are bigoted whites, it’s time to admit bigotry also comes into play with all humans, not just some.

    I once had a teacher who taught that all bigotry is caused by fear. I’ve spent a lot of years thinking about this and have never been able to see it as otherwise much as I have tried to find some other cause of it. The older I get, the more I think it’s so. Fear is what’s really keeping people apart. Fear of what’s different than you. Fear of giving an inch and having someone else take a yard (and, yes, I mean that on both white and black sides). Frankly, fear of the unknown, of what’s going to be the result of changing the status quo. I hate to say it but we really do have nothing to fear but fear itself. At least when the status quo is separating people.

    There are still inequities. I did not deny that. But they will continue to exist as long as we excuse prejudice in any form, no matter who’s practicing it. That’s why I often protest here when there’s posts or comments saying not to be tolerant of even the mildest forms of religion.

    I’m willing to live and let live anyone who is willing to do the same by me. It’s when they don’t, I have a problem.

    And if whites are being made to feel they shouldn’t head an inner city group that’s about something other than race, then, yes, I see a problem with that. The same problem if this group were in some largely white local and they were discouraging a black leader from running for president.

    I’m a glutton for punishment, so I probably will any way.

    Well, we have that much in common anyway. I speak my mind even when I know I’m gonna get flak for it. At least in situations where I don’t have to fear physical violence.

  • muggle

    But if you can think of any time when you were so thoroughly alienated, and even your alienation was invisible (people couldn’t believe it even existed!), then I don’t think you would say things like, “Preaching to the choir really doesn’t accomplish much.” But in that alienation, you wouldn’t even be aware if there *were* a choir or if you were singing solo and a capella.

    Almost forgot to say it, Andrew, but I very much liked that. That’s me when you talk about single mothers. Most have not had to skip state with their child to protect them and no one knows what that’s like when it’s the truth. So, yeah, I do have some idea what it’s like to be that alone and that unseen. And that unable to join the choir. The way I’ve often put it is I march to my own beat because I can’t even hear the one everyone else seems to be marching to and I’m painfully aware that they don’t hear mine.

  • muggle,

    I would agree with you if this were a group about black history and civil rights but it’s not. It’s an Atheist group. I’ll admit I only have experience with a mixed group and it was a small group so everyone participated. Every Atheist’s experience is different, not just Atheists of differing colors.

    You make it seem like the the two are mutually exclusive. But aren’t atheists not seeking civil rights and protections? Aren’t we not reeling from discrimination?

    As you have said, every atheists experience is different. This actually, I think, shows my case. An “atheist group” is a bit silly, because it implies a level of commonality and shared experience that atheists alone do not have. We share one nonbelief in deities, and that’s all that is *necessary* to be an atheist.

    So, how do we form groups? It is through co-opting similarities elsewhere. For example, in America, most of us *do* share some semblance of common experience as a result of living in a society that is majority theistic. So, our groups co-opt that, when possible. But even this common experience isn’t so common, because “theism” too is just an umbrella. Growing up in a primarily Catholic community is different than growing up in a primarily Mormon community, growing up in a primarily protestant community, primarily Jewish community, etc.,

    But it should also follow that — if there is any *social reality* to color as there is a *social reality* to religion (which there is) — then this should be coopted when available as well. I wouldn’t expect anything else. EVEN IF we ignored the social reality of color and just stuck to “atheist growing up in a religious community,” then the experience of growing up in a community whose citizens are members of primarily black churches has a big impact. Especially since plenty of black church theology *does* emphasize civil rights, black history, and black experience. I mean, really, I think this produces more tension in a way that you’d just have to live to understand. If the black church is tied to social justice and black liberation ideology, then if you are an atheist and someone calls you a racial traitor, do you realize how pervasive and insulting this is?

    So I really don’t think it would be inappropriate for a group of similarly situated individuals to at least want to bring that up occasionally. I don’t know what the Harlem group talks about in particular…that may or may not be it. But I certainly don’t think that it’s so clear cut and divided as to say “It’s not about black history and civil rights.” Things are more muddled together.

    No, I can’t absolutely know what it’s like to be black any more than you can know what it’s like to be a woman. That point is well taken. I just don’t think it’s terribly relevant in this instance.

    If I, or someone else, started making claims about what women should do, how women really are, what groups of women should talk about and do, and it really failed to capture your experience, wouldn’t you think that it might be at least a little bit more relevant? If I said, “OK, forget your womanhood. Just stop talking about it! This part of your life is not relevant for this other group,” do you think that would be stifling? Do you have any experiences as an atheist that are impacted acutely *because* you are a woman??

    And the part of my childhood spent in a black neighborhood was in Albany, not Harlem but it’s an experience I’ve learned from, not the least lesson of which was that we’d get ganged up for being white (this was in the mid-’60’s to date myself) and when we did move to a white town, I saw the one black kid ganged up on and thought people are all alike, they’re all assholes, which 40 years later I’m still seeing as a fair assessment of things.

    But do you understand *why* you were ganged up on? Do you understand *why* the one black kid was ganged up on? Why are people all assholes? Is it for the same reason? Is the reason why all the same?

    No one is saying that white people cannot talk. I don’t see anyone blaming you (at least, not in this discussion) for what other white people did. At the worst, I see people tiptoeing around what you are saying or doing *now*, some of which you don’t realize you are saying or doing, and would probably be adamant that you are not saying those things. With things that people do *now*, there isn’t much of a need to go around to what “other people did” or “what happened a long time ago.” There’s enough to only go by what happens every day and continually erase all of history!

  • muggle (msg 2):

    Almost forgot to say it, Andrew, but I very much liked that. That’s me when you talk about single mothers. Most have not had to skip state with their child to protect them and no one knows what that’s like when it’s the truth. So, yeah, I do have some idea what it’s like to be that alone and that unseen. And that unable to join the choir. The way I’ve often put it is I march to my own beat because I can’t even hear the one everyone else seems to be marching to and I’m painfully aware that they don’t hear mine.

    So, if I may ask a few questions. Do you feel that some people underestimate what single mothers go through? Do you feel that some people feel confident of what single mothers go through, but then time and time again, you find that these people don’t really capture what it’s like to be a single mother at all? Do you ever try to explain to these people what it’s really like, but then they try to correct you and challenge you on your own life experiences, saying that you looked at it all wrong, you should just grin and bear it, etc.,?

    Does being a single mother affect more of your life than people commonly assume? Does it affect more of your likes, dislikes, preferences, distastes, etc., than people are willing to admit? Do you feel that people put your set of experiences in a box “Single motherdom” and don’t let you talk about those experiences outside of that box?

    And finally…are you excited for those rare times when you finally meet someone who gets it…someone who not only knows what it’s like to be a single mother but ALSO knows what it’s like to be questioned on her own experiences, to have her own experiences doubted and invalidated? Or, if you do not meet those people, do you long for such a thing?

  • muggle

    Well, yes, Andrew, to all of the above. 🙂

    Does being a woman have anything to do with religion or an absence thereof? Obviously. Given religion’s oppression of women.

    One small thing though, I wasn’t talking about being a single mother but being of a subset of a single mother as one who fled state with her child to protect them from the other parent. I’ve yet to meet anyone, male or female, married or single, who’s done that. Yes, it would be nice.

    It weirds people out. It’s only supposed to be something they’re confronted with in the abstract. All those movies and talk show discussions, vague rumors of a new underground railroad. In the flesh, the reality of it makes them uncomfortable. Yes, even other single mothers though they’re definitely more sympathetic than those who hear single mother and think welfare mother (something I’ve never been).

    Sometimes it seems the chasms between people are too difficult to bridge. I hope not.

    I think it for this reason I react so bitterly to common ground, such as nonbelief and the prejudice it incurs in our society, still broken down between other barriers. Color’s one but I’d have reacted if it were something like gender or your example of ex-Mormon vs. ex-Jew or something.

    But if you and I can talk about it openly even in cyberspace, hey, that’s some small beginning.